Celtic began their Europa League campaign with a hard-fought 1-0 win over familiar foes Rosenborg on Thursday night.
With a frustrating clash heading towards a scoreless stalemate, Leigh Griffiths came off the bench and headed home a late winner to give Brendan Rodgers’ Hoops three points.
Although Griffiths stole the headlines, Filip Benkovic impressed at the back. Our friends at Football Whispers take a closer look at the giant centre-back.
Celtic fans were not happy with their club’s indolence in the summer transfer window, and their frustration was deepened when Moussa Dembele departed for Lyon and no replacement was signed.
However, it’s clear that securing the services of Benkovic on loan from Leicester City for the season was a shrewd move.
Despite being a loan deal, snapping up Benkovic was a significant coup for the Scottish champions. Rodgers prioritised bolstering his backline in the summer, particularly when it looked as though Dedryck Boyata had played his last game for the club.
However, the wantaway Belgian remained at Parkhead and, combined with Benkovic, can be a crucial cog for the Bhoys as they look to maintain their vice-like grip on the Scottish title.
After arriving on deadline day, the Croatia Under-21 international made his debut in the 0-0 draw at St Mirren. It proved to be a problematic game for Celtic following Olivier Ntcham’s first-half red card, but the response to Benkovic’s contributions were largely positive.
The defender was withdrawn on the hour mark against the Buddies for Griffiths as Rodgers pressed for the winner but was given a full 90 minutes against Rosenborg on Thursday.
Having switched back to a four-man defence, Benkovic looked rock-solid alongside Boyata en route to keeping a clean sheet. The 21-year-old’s stats certainly painted a telling picture of the composure and confidence with which he conducted his duties.
Benkovic completed 98 per cent of his 84 passes, with an impressive 100 per cent of his 15 long balls reaching their intended targets. At 6ft 4in tall, it came as no surprise to see that he won all seven of his aerial duels while also making four interceptions and four clearances.
In other words, Benkovic commanded the defence expertly as Celtic searched for a way to break the Norwegian side’s resistance. Having only turned 21 in July, Benkovic is on an upward curve, and while he arguably won’t peak for another few years, it’s clear why Leicester paid Dinamo Zagreb £13million for his signature.
He, along with Boyata, will form the defensive bedrock of Celtic’s season. If Rodgers’ side have ambitions of a deep run into the latter stages of the Europa League, Benkovic’s physical and technical attributes will be a major asset.
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Along with his towering presence in aerial battles, Benkovic is comfortable on the ball and possesses an impressive turn of pace for such a big man.
Admittedly, Rosenborg did not offer the greatest threat in attack and, while Benkovic defended stoutly, much tougher assignments lie ahead, especially with RB Leipzig and Salzburg to come in Europe.
Celtic’s toils in finding that elusive opener against Rosenborg prompted Rodgers into action early in the second half, replacing Tom Rogic and James Forrest with Scott Sinclair and Mikey Johnston, with the latter making a particular impression after his willingness to drive at the heart of the visitors’ defence nearly produced a goal for his fellow substitute.
Rodgers’ problems don’t lie in defence. Following five consecutive clean sheets, the emphasis lies more with finding a way to get his attack-minded players working in tandem so that the champions can fire on all cylinders.
Griffiths certainly staked his claim to return to the starting line-up for Sunday’s trip to Kilmarnock, while some will argue that Johnston, who offers pace and directness from the flank, deserves a first Scottish Premiership start of the season.
However, Rodgers can draw encouragement from Benkovic and Boyata’s blossoming partnership at the back. Although question marks remain over Mikael Lustig (with many arguing that Cristian Gamboa is the better option), Kieran Tierney’s continued brilliance up and down the left wing means Rodgers can be content with the progress of at least three of his defenders.
Celtic’s switch to a 4-3-3 following the substitutions on Thursday night may signal further changes for Rodgers on Sunday. However, having shone on his European debut for the club, Benkovic has wasted no time nailing down his spot and it looks as though the highly rated Croatian will be a key figure in Celtic’s season.
* Odds subject to change