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Lazio intensify pursuit of Celtic star Jozo Simunovic


Lazio intensify pursuit of Celtic star Jozo Simunovic

He’s only been in Glasgow since 2015 but Jozo Simunovic’s name has constantly been linked with a move away from Celtic.

English Premier League clubs like Burnley and Crystal Palace were known to be interested in last month’s transfer window; Rafael Benitez seemed keen on bringing him to Newcastle last season.

Now Serie A giants Lazio are the latest mentioned in association with Simunovic. It comes after the club suffered a blow when it was announced that their current central defender Stefan De Vrij will leave on a free transfer when his contract expires in the coming summer. The Dutchman will be hard to replace but Lazio manager Simone Inzaghi has placed Simunovic on his shortlist, along with Saint Etienne’s Neven Subotic.

Lazio’s interest in the player is nothing new, as they were reportedly monitoring Simunovic from last summer, but what’s intriguing is why they’ve come back in for him now, considering his performances for Celtic during the first half of this season: Simunovic has looked well below his best, shaky with the ball at his feet, hesitant in the tackle, and Celtic’s defence has suffered accordingly.

Needless mistakes have cluttered his game, including an awful one against Patrick Thistle in the Scottish Cup 5th round that offered them a lifeline. He did not look particularly composed in punishing Champions League defeats against PSG both at home and away (5-0 and 7-1 respectively).

It’s all a far cry from the solid defender who dominated in 2016/2017, with his steady partnership with Dedryck Boyata a large part of Celtic’s magnificent unbeaten season in the Scottish Premiership. He had overcome an injury-hit first season at the club to play 25 times in the league, a good return to say the least.

Celtic fans fondly like to recall his bone-crunching tackle on Kenny Miller against Rangers in a 5-1 humbling that sent the striker flying into the Ibrox air. His manager Brendan Rodgers said recently that the only way for Simunovic to make it to the very top was by cutting out the little mistakes he’s prone to and Simunovic duly put in a good performance in the Europa League win over Zenit St Petersburg on February 15.

Bhoy Šimunović
Bhoy Šimunović

The return leg in Russia proved too hot to handle for the Hoops as Zenit defeated Celtic 3-0 and advanced in the next round of the Europa League with a 3-1 aggregate victory.

However, a lot of the appeal stems from Simunovic’s age: At just 23, he’s still learning and under the right management, at the right club, has enough attributes to develop into an elite player.

A figure of £8 million has been quoted in the media; a tremendous figure in today’s transfer climate for a player not yet at his peak. Celtic would do well to seriously consider such an offer, too, which would represent a decent profit for the player. They were unwilling to listen to offers in the past due to the lack of alternative options at the back but youngster Jack Hendry joined from Dundee in January, as did the experienced Marvin Compper from RB Leipzig; so any loss of Simunovic won’t be as keenly felt.

Another thing to take into account is Rodgers’ preferred mode of playing, in which he likes his defenders to be comfortable with playing the ball out from the back. This is just something Simunovic isn’t comfortable doing, looking awkward and flat-footed, and is one of the reasons why Compper has been recruited.

If Rodgers wants to commit to this philosophy, Simunovic could be a sacrificial victim to the cause. He’ll have to keep improving his performances in the remainder of this season which could then see Lazio make a move in summer.