Jozo Simunovic will be new Virgil van Dijk - Deila

Jozo Simunovic dons his new colours at Celtic Park. Picture: SNS

Jozo Simunovic dons his new colours at Celtic Park. Picture: SNS

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HOW do you fill the chasm created by the £13 million sale of your prized asset? Sign a prospect who is a £13m performer-in-waiting.

That is the neat transition that Celtic manager Ronny Deila hopes will follow from the departure of Virgil van Dijk and the arrival of Jozo Simunovic in moves at the end of the transfer window.

No pressure on the 21-year-old Croatian, then, a centre-back whose £4.5m purchase from Dinamo Zagreb made him the costliest acquisition by a Scottish club in 14 years.

The money paid for Simunovic appears all the more eye-watering in light of the fact that he wasn’t a guaranteed starter for Dinamo.

He made the first XI a total of 20 times for the Croatian champions last season. Deila, though, seems in little doubt that the willowy 6ft 3in defender, introduced to the media yesterday, will be the “new van Dijk,” who became the Scottish game’s most expensive export on joining Southampton in a £13m deal.

“Simunovic is a modern player. When you buy young players, it takes times, a little bit of time, for them to adapt, but we see him as a big, big prospect,” said the Celtic manager.

“He’s the Croatia under-21
captain, he has played big matches for Dinamo Zagreb, but not every match all the time – and he’s still young.

“So this is a new Virgil van Dijk, someone we can build up to be like that. Virgil also took time to get up to his level. And he has progressed all the time.

“The first year with Virgil, he was a bit up and down. At the end of that season, we could have sold him for maybe £7m or £8m. And then we kept him for one more year, suddenly he is worth £13m.

“I think if we could have kept Virgil for one more year, he could have gone for £18m. But we had no chance to keep him, he didn’t want to be here any more.

“So this is a new Virgil coming in, someone we can build up into a top-quality player. In time, we hope he will be as good as Virgil. That’s what we hope for. He is a different player, he’s not Virgil [in the way he plays].

“But he is a modern central defender, very quick, with good movement and good ability, good technique, as well as a good attitude and understanding of the game.

“He’s very well educated. So we just have to get him into Scotland and get him used to this type of football. I think he has the potential [to be a £13m player]. But, if you look at Virgil when he came here, nobody knew about him – he just developed through the years. We feel we’ve brought a player here who has the 
attributes that can make him a top-class player. That’s why we signed him.”

As with Van Dijk, Celtic were enticed to pursue Simunovic 
because of his performances in the international arena at Under-21 level.

The club careers of the two players have many parallels. Both had been in and around their first teams for three years, clocking up more than 50 senior appearances in that time.

Owing to the pressures for league title and Champions League participation, it could be argued that Simunovic learned his trade in a more pressured 
environment.

In part, perhaps, because Celtic were closing in on a deal for him, the young Croatian did not make it off the bench as Dinamo thumped Albanian side Skenderbeu Korce 6-2 on aggregate to book a berth in the Champions League group stages.

Yet, the fact his former club could happily do without him also features among the reasons why he says it was not difficult to part with his home city club just as dates with Arsenal and Bayern Munich loomed.

“It was not a wrench to leave because I want this. I wanted the chance to play for Celtic and I hope next year I will play in the Champions League with Celtic. I believe it,” he said.

Simunovic declares he is “excited and ready to play” if Deila should elect to pitch him in at Pittodrie tomorrow for an 
encounter that has the potential to shape the course of the 
Premiership.

The price tag that will be clamped to him like a limpet will not weigh him down whenever he makes his debut for his new club, he maintains.

“There is big money at stake but I don’t feel much pressure. I am here to do my best in every single game,” he said.

The centre-back has already made his mark as a Celtic player by carving out a slice of history, although while not in the 
employment of the club.

Following the confirmation of his Glasgow move last week, he captained Croatia’s Under-21 side to a 4-0 victory over Estonia. Within eight seconds Simunovic had earned a caution – the quickest booking ever in the Uefa competition.

“I jumped and the referee made the wrong decision,” he said with a smile.

“He blew the wrong whistle. When I jumped I hit their 
attacker but it wasn’t a foul. He gave me a yellow card – but it was not one.”

Now, the defender is on red alert of a different variety.

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