When Jozo Simunovic was on the verge of joining Serie A side Torino on Transfer Deadline Day, not many in Scotland batted an eyelid. ‘Never really got a chance’, ‘too many injuries’ and ‘another one cleared off the Celtic wage bill’ seemed to be the general consensus and £3.75 million looked a well-negotiated price for a player who had barely been off the treatment table since arriving from Dinamo Zagreb in the previous summer window.
Even when his move collapsed and he returned to Lennoxtown, there was a fairly muted response and when the centre-half eventually returned to the Celtic starting line-up it was in their low-key 2-0 victory against Alloa in the Betfred Cup. He was being overlooked for the crazy night against Manchester City and there was nothing to show that – having been surplus to Brendan Rodgers’ requirements in August – anything had now changed.
However, Kolo Toure’s loss would be Jozo’s gain. The ex-Liverpool defender Toure, who had looked an assured signing and was one of the main reasons the Hoops made it back into the Champions League, had a calamitous night against Borussia Monchengladbach at Celtic Park and was subsequently dropped for their semi-final against Rangers. Simunovic was given a chance and he has taken it.
The man who was only a doctor’s opinion away from becoming another one of Celtic’s forgotten men now has the chance to make a real mark at Parkhead. Alongside Danish international Erik Sviatchenko, Simunovic has cemented himself at the heart of the Hoops’ backline and he is beginning to look the player that supporters hoped he would be when he first arrived in the summer of 2015.
Simunovic plays with a real assurance and uses the ball very well – an important quality to have in a side that always dominates possession domestically. But he is not afraid to do the old-fashioned stuff and although Celtic lost to Barcelona, he impressed with his defensive qualities when faced with one of the best attacks of all-time.
A no-nonsense centre-half, who reads the game well and shows composure, it is a miracle he has not suffered the contamination of sharing a bench with Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata.
It is an amazing turnaround in just over three months for the Croatian. A cartilage problem flagged in the Torino medical was reportedly the reason the transfer collapsed – although Jozo denies that fitness was the issue. Whatever the reason, it could turn out to be the near-miss of the season.
In 2015, David De Gea’s transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid collapsed in the 11th hour and he went on to become the club’s Player of the Season. Simunovic could be struggling to get past Moussa Dembele for that particular award, but he is already well on the way to making a similar sort of impact after coming in from the cold.
There are still fitness issues and Rodgers does not yet trust him to play every game, but with such a big cushion in the league already, the club can manage his workload and ease him back in over the course of the next few months.
Simunovic and Sviatchenko appear to be Rodgers’ first choices at centre-back, and their partnership is beginning to show positive signs. They strolled through the Betfred Cup final against an albeit toothless Aberdeen attack and will only improve the more games they play together.
It has taken them a few years to do so, but Celtic may have finally found a partnership as effective as that of Virgil Van Dijk and Jason Denayer, which was the cornerstone for their league title and Europa League run a few seasons ago. Both are now playing in the Premier League and you suspect Simunovic and Sviatchenko will both be attracting attention from down south sooner rather than later. But with age on their side – the pair are just 22 and 25 respectively – Celtic will be hoping they can form a solid base at the back for years to come.