CELTIC defender Virgil van Dijk admits he feared his cup final dream had been wrecked by last week’s red card at Tannadice.
The Dutchman was sent off during Celtic’s William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final draw with Dundee United following an off-the-ball spat with the Taysider’s Calum Butcher.
Referee Craig Thompson sent-off Van Dijk before making a major gaffe when he wrongly dismissed Butcher’s Terrors team-mate Paul Paton.
That left both men sweating on their places for last Sunday’s Scottish League Cup showdown at Hampden.
But there was relief for Van Dijk and Paton as they were later cleared to play after successful appeals to the Scottish Football Association’s disciplinary panel.
And it was the Celtic centre-half who was left bearing the brightest grin as his side clinched Ronny Deila’s first trophy as Parkhead manager with a 2-0 win at the National Stadium.
Van Dijk said: “It was quite a tough week. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life.
“It would have been very disappointing if I’d not been allowed to play on Sunday, especially with it being my first final ever.
“But you know, justice was served and I was able to play. Luckily I got the red card overturned and we did a good job.”
Van Dijk has been linked with summer moves south of the border, with Barclays Premier League high-flyers Arsenal and Southampton monitoring his progress. But for now the 23-year-old is happy to enjoy Celtic’s treble chase.
“It means a lot to have lifted the League Cup,” he said. “It’s my first cup trophy ever.
“This club is an amazing place, I have always said that. I have been improving since the day I came here.
“That is the most important thing for a player. If you win trophies, that’s even better.”
Kris Commons fired Celtic ahead midway through the first half before substitute James Forrest stroked home a second 12 minutes from time.
The Celtic winger also had time to miss a late penalty as a United side that spent the last 35 minutes a man down following skipper Sean Dillon’s red card avoided a heavier defeat.
However, Jackie McNamara’s team will go for revenge when the sides meet for part three of their four-game duel with tomorrow’s Scottish Cup replay taking place at Celtic Park.
Van Dijk said: “We made it tough for ourselves on Sunday and should have finished the game faster in the second half.
“One-nil is a dangerous score – if they had scored one goal they would have had the belief to hit us with everything.
“At moments it looked tough but Craig Gordon only had one save to make in the first half and nothing in the second half, so I think we did well.
“It’s a big boost for us ahead of Wednesday night. We can go for the second cup now full of confidence.
“They will be up for it on Wednesday night and know they have possibilities with the players coming back in to their team.
“But we need to be ready and win the game.”
It was Deila’s first trophy since replacing Neil Lennon in the summer and went some way to vindicating the Parkhead outfit’s decision to place their faith in the surprise choice of the Norwegian.
The former Stromsgodset coach was heavily criticised just weeks after moving to Scotland when his new charges crashed out of the Champions League twice.
But now his assistant, John Collins, claims the progress under Deila is clear to be seen.
“I don’t think he will be looking for apologies from his critics,” he said.
“We’ve all been in this game a long time and you get used to the criticism when it comes along. Sometimes it is deserved, sometimes it’s not. We just get on with our job by trying to make the players and the team better.
“It takes time. Rome wasn’t build in a day. Nobody has a magic wand. You can’t just push a button and everything changes. It takes hard work and a lot of small changes.
“But from the first month to now, you can see it paying off. As every week goes by, there is improvement.”
Celtic now take on United for the third time in ten days when they meet in their William Hill Scottish Cup replay at Parkhead tomorrow. And Collins insists there will be no easing off as Celtic hunt a treble.
He said: “From day one Ronny has said of course we want to win every tournament. If we never said that people would say we don’t have the right attitude.
“We want to win every game but then again, the treble has not been done too many times in history.
“But that’s what we’re after. We know it will be tough but we start again on Wednesday night against Dundee United. That’s all we are focusing on.”
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