As a season-long loanee, at best, from Leicester City, Filip Benkovic is just passing through at Celtic. The 21-year-old Croatian is, however, letting no moment in Glasgow pass him by.
The centre-back is fast becoming arguably the most lauded performer in the ranks of Brendan Rodgers’ side.
Indeed, the outstanding form of a player whom Leicester prised from Croatia Zagreb for £13 million in the summer is one of the central reasons few can see anything other than Celtic snaring a seventh straight domestic trophy with a Betfred Cup final victory over Aberdeen at Hampden this afternoon.
The clean sheet in the club’s 1-0 victory away to Rosenborg on Thursday – which has left them well placed to qualify for the Europa League last 32 – was the ninth in the 11 games that Benkovic has played for the Scottish champions. His calm assurance – “I try not to get nervous”, he said – this week led Frank McAvennie to claim the centre-back was going “all the way to the very top” in the fashion redolent of no less than equally languid former Celtic defender Virgil van Dijk. The two years the Dutchman spent at Parkhead proved the basis for a vertiginous career climb. It allowed him to scale the heights in the Premier League following a £13.5m switch to Southampton that, in turn, moved Liverpool to fork out the mountainous fee of £75m that topped any sum previously lavished on a centre-back.
Possible parallels between the pair appeal to Benkovic, who considers the Anfield pivot the ultimate role model.
“When people compare me to Van Dijk it makes me proud. It gives me confirmation that I’m doing a good job here. But I know I’m still far away from Van Dijk as a player,” said the Croatian.
“I want to work hard and learn from players like him. I watch a lot of his games and one day I want to be at his level. His route – and the one I’m taking now – is the best way for your career.
“It’s not normal to skip steps if you want to make a good career. If you want to be a big player – you can’t think you’re the best right away. You have to realise your own situation. You have to be patient, humble and work hard to take each step to the top.
“I remember Van Dijk playing for Celtic. In Croatia they show a lot of Celtic games and I watched him on there and on Youtube. In two years here, he progressed a lot. For me, he’s now the best defender in the world.”
Celtic isn’t simply a proving ground for Benkovic, though, it is an opportunity to be cherished. Amid talk of Leicester having the option to recall Benkovic in the January window, the club’s manager Claude Puel said this week that, injuries notwithstanding, it was the intention to allow the player to continue his development under Rodgers for the season to ensure he was ready for the Premier League step next season. That is what Benkovic wants too.
“Really, I can’t describe how happy I am to be here at Celtic,” he said. “I’m so proud and I’m enjoying every second of it. When this opportunity came up, I didn’t think about it at all. From my side it was clear – I wanted to make the move. I was so happy. I’m thankful to Celtic and Leicester for making it happen.
“The manager at Leicester looked at the situation and realised he had a lot of defenders. He wanted to give me a chance to play somewhere. I felt the same.
“I only had one month at the club but in training I felt good at Leicester. It was a big difference from the Croatian league and it’s also different to the Scottish too. But I think I’m on the right track to eventually be part of Leicester’s team. I really want to be here all season. I want to win trophies for Celtic. That is why I play football. I want to win things and enjoy it with the fans. For me, that is priceless. I hope that I will stay here until the end of the season.”
Football has become so transient, or else Benkovic has proved so accomplished, that both the Celtic support and the player have had no qualms about cementing a bond that by its very nature must soon be fractured. The defender has been happy to lead the dancing in post-match celebrations, and the fans have been as mutually expressive in treating him as one of their own. “You never know,” Benkovic joked when asked if he would be heading up the cavorting at Hampden if the League Cup is secured today, but what he certainly does know is the enduring impression his short stay at the club will make on him.
“I have followed what the fans have been saying a little bit and it makes me happy,” he said. “The Celtic fans are unbelievable. Everybody asks me about Celtic in Croatia and I say to them, ‘I can’t describe what it’s like...you have to experience it’.
“I will take this experience with me for the rest of my life.
“I really hope that it will be like this until the end of the season as I am enjoying every moment of it. Maybe I will keep dancing...and do some new moves. You never know. It’s more important that we win the games but when it happens and we play well, I am always happy.”