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Monday 24 September 2018

Ajer to make a splash

Celtic defender on top form as he's thrown in deep end

PRESSURE: Celtic defender Kristoffer Ajer. Photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
PRESSURE: Celtic defender Kristoffer Ajer. Photo: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Kristoffer Ajer admits he does not have time to stop and think about his progress as he copes with the responsibility of keeping Celtic on track for the Champions League.

Brendan Rodgers has been forced to put his faith in both the 20-year-old centre-back and young defensive partner Jack Hendry at crucial points already this term.

Belgian World Cup star Dedryck Boyata only rejoined the Hoops squad last week after his extended break, while Jozo Simunovic missed both legs of their clash with Rosenborg through suspension.

However, Norway international Ajer has thrived under pressure, helping to guide the Scottish champions comfortably past his compatriots as they set up tomorrow's third-round qualifier with AEK Athens.

It has been a rapid ascent for the former Start youngster, but stopping to reflect on how far he has come since returning to Celtic Park from a loan stint at Kilmarnock 12 months ago is not an option. Instead, he will have to be on his toes again when the Greek champions come to town as the high-stakes showdowns come thick and fast. That, though, is just the way Ajer likes it.

"That's what you want as a footballer," he said ahead of the first-leg Parkhead tie.

"You train every day to have expectations placed on your shoulders. To perform and keep a clean sheet away in Norway was a fantastic feeling.

"Do I perform best when I have that responsibility on me? Yeah. Every single game when you play here for Celtic you have expectations on you to win every single game and that is something that really helps to develop young players.

"I'm just really happy to be here. It's a really healthy environment here at Celtic.

"There is a big game coming up every three days and you have to be ready for it.

"You don't have the opportunity to rest and think about the last game. You always have to look forward and now there's already another game coming up on Wednesday."

Celtic have now learned that should they see off AEK, they will face either Swedes Malmo or Hungarian club Vidi in play-offs.

It could have been a lot worse as Rodgers' men avoided the likes of PSV, Red Star Belgrade, Qarabag, Astana and Dinamo Zagreb in the draw for the final hurdle before the group stages.

However, Ajer does not expect the level of competition to drop after opening their qualifying campaign with two tricky tests.

He said: "When you play these games there will always be difficult games.

"It is tough every single year. We've played Alashkert, we've played Rosenborg and now we play another great team again in Athens.

"Yeah it's tough, but it's the Champions League and it's the best teams in the world.

Difficult

"We've played against some really good teams so far. The first Alashkert game was really difficult out there and they made it tough for us.

"Rosenborg are a great team too. AEK are also a fantastic team who won their league in Greece last year so it will not be easy.

"We just have to take it one game at a time - but when you play for Celtic the target is always to get to the Champions League."

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