The Norwegian centre-back has come of age this season, despite being still only 20. Yet that hasn’t stopped his Swedish predecessor at the heart of the Celtic defence having long been on a countdown with Ajer.
“I’ve seen a lot of him and I’ve actually been waiting on him exploding, to a certain degree. He caught my eye when he started to play,” said Mjallby. “Now he’s got more experience and he’s probably maturing a lot as well. He’s got every chance of becoming a top, top player some day.”
Ajer excelled in the recent derby win that as good as ensured Celtic will win an eighth straight league crown. With Dedryck Boyata lost for the rest of the season with a hamstring tear, Jozo Simunovic erratic, and Filip Benkovic still getting up to speed following a three-month lay-off, Ajer will be the foundation of Celtic’s backline at Hampden on Sunday as they seek a Scottish Cup last-four victory over Aberdeen that would put them within a final win of a third straight treble.
It is little wonder then that Ajer’s potential is being bracketed with that which Virgil van Dijk buffed up at Celtic under the guidance of Mjallby, then assistant to Neil Lennon. “Virgil van Dijk was probably further ahead when we brought him in [as a 22-year-old from Groningen in 2013] but you see him playing for Liverpool now with all his leadership qualities,” said Mjallby. “At Celtic, when he was new into the club and the atmosphere of everything surrounding Celtic Football Club, it took him a while to get his leadership qualities out.
“Not football wise, because he was too good even when he first came here, and with that it was more a case of telling him to stay focused because it was too easy for him. It’s important for Kristoff as he’s so young to improve his leadership qualities before he’s contemplating going to another league. He could definitely follow the same path as Van Dijk if he stays. He’s got every chance.
“At 6ft 4ins he has the size and is good on the ball as well. It’s probably taken him some time to put his authority out there. But he did that in the Old Firm game, which is such a high-profile, high-pressure game. Other games you may have 80 per cent of the possession and it’s more important to stay focused than just defend. He should definitely stay and become a Celtic stalwart before he even contemplates a move.”
Ajer, a captain at first club Start at the startling age of 16 when he was then considered a playmaking midfielder, has now been fast-tracked by his national side, helmed by former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback. He has become a first pick for a notedly cautious coach, whose approach with the Swedes was to allow flair only within a disciplined framework. Mjallby knows all about that philosophy and believes the trust Lagerback has placed in Ajer is the ultimate compliment to his rearguard attributes.
“He’s got a good teacher there defensively in Lars Lagerback,” said the 48-year-old. “The fact he plays him regularly shows Lars thinks he’s a good defender and that he’s doing the right things.”
l Johan Mjallby was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.