Jozo Simunovic signs new deal ahead of superstar challenge

In their nine previous Champions League group stage campaigns, Celtic have never managed to win their opening-night fixture.
Jozo Simunovic during training at Lennoxtown ahead of Celtic's Champions League tie against PSGJozo Simunovic during training at Lennoxtown ahead of Celtic's Champions League tie against PSG
Jozo Simunovic during training at Lennoxtown ahead of Celtic's Champions League tie against PSG
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Very few will anticipate them setting that record straight at the tenth attempt this evening when Paris Saint-Germain, one of the pre-tournament favourites, roll up in the east end of Glasgow with their lavishly assembled squad.

But regardless of the result, Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers is relishing an occasion which can help him take the development of his own players to another level. As he seeks to build a legacy at the Scottish champions, the retention and improvement of a talent such as Jozo Simunovic is a key factor in the Rodgers’ project.

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The 23-year-old Bosnian defender yesterday signed a new contract, committing him to the club until 2021. The prospect of the kind of examinations he will face tonight against PSG’s forward line of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani is a lure which helps to keep him in Scotland despite interest from Spartak Moscow and Burnley during the recent transfer window.

Simunovic had a brief taste of Champions League football last season, playing in Celtic’s final two group games – the 2-0 defeat at home to Barcelona and the 1-1 draw away to Manchester City. For Rodgers, the experience of trying to shackle superstars such as Lionel Messi – who scored both of Barca’s goals that night – and Neymar is priceless.

“Defenders will develop against the level of movement and speed and technique these guys have,” said Rodgers, pictured above.

“I remember talking to Jozo last year and I said, ‘Go on and tell me, what was it like to face Messi?’ He told me, ‘Every time I turned round he was staring at me!’ Jozo said Messi was looking at him and it unnerved him.

“That’s the level of player – the likes of Messi, Suarez and Neymar don’t go to the ball, the ball comes to them. All they are looking for is the space.

“When they see a guy move they move. Messi last year was just watching and waiting for his moment as you saw for his first goal and, when they sense it, they have the speed to get in there. They also have the technique to finish.

“You don’t get that look in Scottish football – well, you do, but they might be looking for something else! They stare in a physical way – ‘what are you doing big yin?’ But you learn from it.

“Jozo is a young player who had a focus on his injury from the past but this is a great arena for him to play. He’s in a coaching environment where he needs that development. Once he’s fit and trains consistently, he’s an outstanding talent. So it’s great news for our squad because we’re trying to build and create something here.”

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Tonight will provide an acid test of Rodgers’ belief his squad have improved significantly since they were humbled 7-0 by Barcelona in the Nou Camp when they began their Champions League group stage campaign 12 months ago.

Celtic paid a heavy price that evening, often appearing naive as they suffered the heaviest defeat of their European history. Rodgers is satisfied his players are better equipped this time around, both tactically and mentally.

“Compared to this stage last season, we have a lot more mobility, strength and power in our team,” he said. “That’s what this competition is about.

“There is a balance. When we prepare domestically, you have a lot of the game and you are working on your counter-pressing – getting the ball back quickly and having it for 70 per cent of the game. You find ways of beating teams who are sat a lot deeper. It’s a different strategy at this level.

“You still want to dominate the ball but it’s also about control of the game which sometimes comes without the ball.

“I’m looking forward to that element of it because we very rarely get the chance to do that. But at the highest level you have to be confident on the counter-attack.

“It’s a balance – it’s about defending, you have to have resilience, courage, bravery, persistence. All those qualities – and a wee bit of luck along the way.

“You have to defend for a purpose and that’s to create opportunities and look to take them when they come.

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“There has to be a sense of reality. We talk about making a mark on the group – with Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich in it, not to forget Anderlecht.

“You cannot get carried away and try to pretend we are something we are not. We are a club playing in a country where we have to fight our way through – just one of the PSG players would get paid more than our whole budget. That’s the reality of where we’re at.

“So I don’t think anyone would say we were insignificant if we didn’t come out the group stages. But, of course, for our own performance level and for the nation, we are trying to gain credibility. Obviously, as professionals, we want to continue in Europe after Christmas.

“But you have to understand the size of the task. It’s not just PlayStation. It’s top, top players we are playing.”