Kristoffer Ajer has helped Celtic keep 13 clean sheets in the 21 first team appearances he has made so far for the Scottish champions.
If the rookie central defender can play his part in notching up another shutout in St Petersburg on Thursday night, it will represent the most significant step yet in his journey to becoming a key player for Brendan Rodgers’ side.
Ajer was hugely impressive in the first leg of the Europa League last 32 tie against Zenit in Glasgow last week as Celtic secured the 1-0 advantage which has raised hopes they can claim a place in the draw for the last 16 which takes place on Friday.
The 19-year-old Norwegian insists he has no fears over Celtic’s ability to resist whatever Zenit throw at them in the Petrovsky Stadium this week. Ajer also feels it would be unfair to attribute Celtic’s winning display in the first leg to a lack of match sharpness on the part of Zenit, who were playing their first competitive fixture after a two-month winter break.
“To be fair, I don’t think they were rusty at all,” said Ajer. “I just felt we pressed the game really well. Zenit gave us a really good fight, it was just that we played very well. We were up for the game. It was a great performance and we deserved to win but we know they can hurt us in St Petersburg. It will be a tough game.
“The positive is we’ve shown them we can defend even if they put us under pressure. We have no fear about that. We’ve shown that in several games. We’re travelling there with the aim of going through.
“I think the tie is still in the balance. In these European games, it’s still very open. They can get an early goal and then we are back at 1-1.
“But we’ll go there focused. The key is thinking it’s still 0-0 knowing we still have to perform to our best levels again. If we do that, we have a great chance.
“If you score a goal away from home having not lost one in the first game, they need three. So we’ll go and try to perform at the same level we did at Celtic Park and hopefully get another good result.
“To get a clean sheet at home before the game in Russia was important. It’s put us in a strong position. We limited them to few chances. They’d one big chance in the first half but Dorus de Vries pulled off a fantastic save. Other than that, we avoided giving away too much. That’s important for our confidence.
“We’ve worked on the back five a lot and have played that system in different games. The gaffer gives us a really clear plan in terms of how he wants us to play and perform in that formation. So it’s easy to get an idea of how we are supposed to play. It was good to perform like that.”
Ajer made only his third European start for Celtic in the first leg, having been a spectator for all six of their Champions League group stage fixtures this season.
“That wasn’t frustrating for me because I know when you play for Celtic it’s a fantastic squad and everyone is looking to perform well,” he added.
“I’m still 19 years old and I just need to take my chances when they come along. I feel I’ve learned a lot from the gaffer and the rest of the staff, both in training and in the games I’ve played.
“I think I’m developing every single day. I didn’t think I’d develop quite as much as I have done this year but it’s a great feeling. I’m getting more and more games. With each one, I feel stronger.
“I just played my normal game against Zenit. It was amazing for me to play on one of these great European nights at Celtic Park. I think our fans are the best in the world on occasions like that. When you play in front of 60,000 they back you up so much it’s unbelievable. We’d 12 minutes at the end of the game to hold out after Callum McGregor scored our goal but the fans helped get us get over the line.
“The whole squad played with confidence on the night and that makes it easier for a centre-half to do his job.
“I think we pressed the game well right from the top of the park. Moussa Dembele held the ball up really well which made it easier for us to get out as a team.
“We controlled the game because of that. If we do the same in St Petersburg, we have a great chance of qualifying for the next round.”