DuTch defender Virgil van Dijk yesterday stressed that the season still has meaning for Celtic after their European exit as he set his sights on going through the league campaign unbeaten.
Neil Lennon’s side posted their 15th game without defeat in the league on Saturday with a 1-0 win over Hibernian. The victory was a satisfying response to the midweek thrashing by Barcelona in their last Group H Champions League fixture. With no European involvement to act as an incentive, some have questioned whether the Celtic players might now lack motivation in what is left of a season where they are fully expected to lift the league title again.
Van Dijk has upped the stakes and believes going through the league season unbeaten – like Arsenal’s “invincibles” team managed to do in the 2003-04 season – is something “everyone dreams of” in the dressing room.
“We are going to try our best,” he said. “We have the quality to do it and have to stay focused. With our quality, I think it is possible.
“We know what we are capable of from each other and we saw it in the two games before we played Barcelona. Hopefully, it’s going to be the rest of the season playing like that.
“We are now 15 games unbeaten, so we hope we can make this run last all season. We should be striving for it because, with the quality we have in the team, it is possible. But you have to work hard and never underestimate anyone, like we never underestimate anyone now.”
Teemu Pukki’s first-half goal secured Celtic’s victory over Terry Butcher’s side on Saturday in appalling conditions as the home picked up their third clean sheet in a row on domestic duty. Lennon’s side have now scored 13 times without reply in the league and Scottish Cup. Such statistics are in stark contrast to their experience of midweek in the Nou Camp, when they fell 6-1 to Barcelona.
Afterwards, manager Neil Lennon questioned the team’s character and issued a challenge to bounce back from such a bracing defeat. While he conceded Barcelona are one of the world’s “superteams”, he had expected Celtic to make things trickier for them. After Lennon’s critical words, Virgil acknowledged: “We have to answer that”. He believes Celtic had already begun to move on from their at times sobering Champions League experience this season following the defeat last month by AC Milan at Parkhead, which confirmed their exit.
Celtic defeated Hearts 7-0 in their next outing in the Scottish Cup and then followed this up with a 5-0 win against Motherwell in the league.
“It’s always good to see the reaction from a team after a 6-1 defeat and we got a win,” he said. “We are still unbeaten in the Premiership. I definitely detect there is mental strength within the team.
“People can expect what they want to expect, but it was simply not a good game for us in Barcelona. However, we beat Hibs and now we look forward.
“As far as I’m concerned, the starting point for moving on was the two games before Barcelona before we were already out of the Champions League.
“We were outstanding against Hearts and Motherwell and the Barcelona game was not good, but we don’t need to panic. It’s up to us to now to focus on the Premiership and Scottish Cup games. Our biggest feeling after the Nou Camp was disappointment because we know we can play better than that.
“We didn’t do it on the night, so now we must make sure we try to win all of the league games to be the champions of Scotland and also win the Scottish Cup.”
The Dutchman added that there is still plenty of motivation for the players as they try to seal their place in Celtic’s future as Lennon turns his thoughts to re-building ahead of next season. “Definitely, we are trying to prove ourselves to the manager, but it has been like that from the beginning,” said Van Dijk.
“There were five new players in the summer and I was one of them.
“At that stage, you know you’ll have to work hard to get into the team and everyone does that every day in training. In games, they then want to show that they are needed to start.
“It’s a good thing. Everyone wants to be part of the team in the future, so the situation is clear for us.
“Everyone knows what they have to do, so we have to work hard and be positive.”