Celtic’s defensive options have been significantly reduced ahead of Wednesday’s crucial Champions League qualifying tie at home to Rosenborg.
The Norwegians have their own turmoil to deal with, having replaced manager Kare Ingebrigtsen with Rini Coolen on Thursday, less than 24 hours overcoming Icelandic Valur with a controversial stoppage-time penalty converted by former Arsenal striker Nickolas Bendtner.
Brendan Rodgers has problems of his own, however. Jozo Simunovic’s studs-up lunge at Jefferson Reis during Wednesday’s win over Alashkert was senseless and needless; Celtic were four goals up on aggregate and the Brazilian, on the far touchline and inside his own half, posed no threat. The Croat will now be a spectator this week, along with the perennially injured Marvin Compper and Mikael Lustig, Cristian Gamboa and Dedryck Boyata, all still recuperating following their exertions at the World Cup finals.
Consequently, much will be asked of Kristoffer Ajer. The young Norwegian will almost certainly form a central defensive partnership with Jack Hendry and his manager expects him to prevail against Bendtner andCo.
Ajer ticks so many boxes for Rodgers that he could have come straight from central casting. He is tall (6’ 5”), strong, athletic and marries old-school ruggedness to impressive technical ability, a legacy from his time as a midfielder with IK Start in his homeland.
“He’s had lots of experiences now and some good ones; he’s made big steps,” said Rodgers. “He’s still only 20 years, but he’s really dominant. You always think that everything that comes through the middle, he’s going to get his head on it.
“The speed of his passing is also getting better. He’s a natural leader as a young guy and he’s improving all the time. He was thrown in last season but a year later he’s a Norwegian international, a Treble winner and he’s developing really, really well. His rampaging runs from defence are part of how we build the game from behind and it helps when you’ve got someone of that quality. When he attacks and steps in, he breaks lines very well.
“You get players like that. They find themselves on the edge of the box but the problem is that then they have to get back! I remember Gerry Taggart doing that for Leicester. He used to step forward and just barge everyone out of his way. Kris is very elegant, though, and the comfort he feels with the ball is very important. I need that with all of the players.
“We need that to play the way we want but it’s really important that they can defend as well. Will other clubs look at him? I’ve no doubt.
“But Kris doesn’t take many risks, which is the key point. He’s come from Norway, where he played as a number ten and scored goals, to developing as a centre-half.
“However, if you can build up play as well, you can be critical for how we play. Kris is very comfortable at that.
“He’s got a lot of strength and he’s a quick learner. He’s a bright boy who takes information on very quickly. Every day in training he wants to win, he wants to improve and get better. He’s progressing very well.”