VIRGIL van Dijk is just 18 matches and five months into his Celtic career but already faces a problem all too familiar for ambitious players plying their trade in the top flight of Scottish football.
Ross County 1-4 Celtic
Scorers: Ross County - Sproule (68); Celtic - Van Dijk (41, 52), Ledley (70, 74)
Referee: K Clancy
The Dutch central defender’s form in recent weeks has been consistently impressive and he further enhanced it on Saturday by contributing his first goals for the club, netting twice in the ultimately facile win over Ross County which maintained Celtic’s five-point lead at the top of the Premiership.
But it came at the end of a week not without its frustrations for Van Dijk. When Louis van Gaal named his squad for the Netherlands’ forthcoming fixtures against Japan and Colombia, the 22-year-old’s hopes of a maiden call-up were unfulfilled.
At a time when the Dutch are not overly blessed with central defensive options, Van Gaal ignored Van Dijk’s claims and instead preferred the also uncapped 21-year-old Joel Veltman of Ajax. The Dutch national coach, of course, saw both players in action as Celtic and Ajax traded victories in the Champions League.
Regardless of how well he performs in Europe’s elite club competition, Van Dijk may find it a struggle to successfully challenge the perception of those outwith Scottish football who regard it as a backwater of the game. Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster, despite a string of eye-catching Champions League displays over the past two seasons, has yet to make his England debut, although that situation may be about to change.
Van Dijk’s prospects of being in the Dutch squad for the World Cup finals in Brazil next summer appear remote in the light of his latest snub from Van Gaal. He appeared reluctant to discuss the situation at length after Saturday’s match but his disappointment was evident.
“No-one from the Dutch FA spoke to me after the game in Amsterdam on Wednesday,” he said. “I know I was being watched but I’m not in the squad. Of course I want to be in the Dutch squad, but it’s not possible just now so I keep focused on Celtic.
“Yes, I feel I am playing the best football of my career so far at the moment. I have made progress, of course. I have played at the highest level in the Champions League so you learn in every game. I am in a good flow now so I want to stay in this line.
“I will now go on vacation during the international break. Rest is the best, so they say, so I think I’ll do that.”
Given his imposing physical presence, it is more than a little surprising that the 6ft 3ins Van Dijk had to wait so long to break his scoring duck for Celtic.
Manager Neil Lennon had spotted a flaw in his aerial work in the opposition penalty area but that seems to have been successfully addressed with his double in Dingwall.
“I’ve been working in training on the timing of my headers when I go up front for set pieces,” said the former Groningen player. “Defensively, I don’t think I have any problems in the air, but my attacking headers have to be better. I can still improve. I had a couple of chances in the game even before I scored and I’ve been waiting for my first Celtic goal for a long time. So I’m really happy to get two.”
After a stodgy opening 40 minutes, when an unambitious Ross County side managed to suffocate Celtic as an attacking force, it was Van Dijk who claimed the first of four headed goals for the Scottish champions. County full-back Mihael Kovacevic claimed he was pushed by Van Dijk for the opener four minutes before half-time, the big Celt nodding Emilio Izaguirre’s cross in off Mark Brown’s right hand post, but the home team’s defensive work left much to be desired.
They were exposed again when Van Dijk made it 2-0 seven minutes into the second half, this time glancing in a Charlie Mulgrew corner. Although substitute Ivan Sproule gave County brief hope when he halved the deficit with his first touch in the 67th minute, firing in from close range after Forster parried Rocco Quinn’s shot, Celtic’s general dominance of proceedings was quickly restored. Joe Ledley made it 3-1 in the 70th minute, heading in another Izaguirre cross, and the Welsh midfielder completed his own double when he rose to convert Darnell Fisher’s fine delivery four minutes later.
“It was frustrating to concede four headers,” said County defender Scott Boyd, the rather bizarre choice in the circumstances of the match sponsors as man of the match.
“We were compact as a team overall, so to lose goals from set-pieces was disappointing. We had countered a lot of Celtic’s play and kept our shape. To let in goals like that was frustrating.
“It was maybe a bad time to play Celtic after their Champions League defeat in Amsterdam when their manager had been a bit critical of them. They came here with a lot of determination and it was up to us to combat that. Unfortunately, we couldn’t.”