The notion that he could be the next Virgil van Dijk practically brings Kristoffer Ajer out in hives. Yet the utterly assured nature of the 20-year-old’s defensive display in Celtic’s Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Aberdeen merely lent weight to Johan Mjallby’s prediction to that effect.
The club’s former assistant manager and backline pivot stated last week that the Norwegian could well have the attributes to follow the career trajectory of the Dutchman, now forming the bedrock of Liverpool’s title challenge and considered the finest player in his position.
Mjallby said it was important that Ajer stayed the course at Celtic to develop his full potential, amidst his concerns the player could be tempted by a move to Germany in the summer. At least in that part of the Swede’s assessment, Ajer is in agreement.
In having agreed his move to Scotland three years ago, Ajer has already been a Celtic player longer than was true for Van Dijk, pictured left, before his £12 million switch to Southampton in 2015. The youngster has no interest in seeking new employment any time soon.
“No, I don’t think so!” Ajer said of being the “next Van Dijk” both in terms of where and when he could be headed in the short term.
“Van Dijk is the best defender in the world. I am so far away from that. I am just focused on developing every day and Celtic is the perfect club for me to do that. Of course he is a fantastic player. But we have some fantastic defenders at our club that I can look up to. There are really top professionals here, like Jozo [Simunovic], who was fantastic on Sunday. The way they look after everybody and treat training every single day, it’s just great to be part of this group.
“I just signed a long-term deal with the club and that tells you all you need to know. I love it here at Celtic, playing for such a massive club.”
Ajer’s more immediate concern is being there for team-mate Ryan Christie. The Scotland attacker suffered what is believed to have been a broken eye socket or broken jaw when he felt the full force of Dom Ball’s head in the face following a reckless challenge from the Aberdeen on-loan full-back at Hampden.
Ajer, right, missed six weeks of the season after sustaining a broken eye socket in November. And though interim Celtic manager Neil Lennon has suggested that Christie could be available for the Scottish Cup final in six weeks’ time, Ajer stresses his team-mate will have psychological as well as physical hurdles to overcome with his injury.
“I know how painful this kind of injury can be,” he said. “I will go around and talk to him. I know it’s a really bad injury but the surgeons these days can fix anything, so hopefully they will do the same with him. When you get back you can’t think too much about it. Especially when you play centre-half, you can’t be thinking about getting hurt when you are going up for duels. It takes a few weeks to get the belief back that it’s fixed but once you have that you aren’t too worried.”
Ajer isn’t feeling the pressure of being one of the players tasked with delivering on the outrageous feat of clinching a treble treble for Celtic. Instead, he derives only pleasure from being in such a position.
“This is the situation you want to be in – playing big games at the end of the season,” he said. “We know we have to win a few more games in the league and we now have the cup final to look forward to. It’s an exciting time.
“It’s a dream come true for me to play for such a massive club like Celtic and playing in front of such unbelievable fans. It’s a real privilege, and I am just concentrating on working even harder.”