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Celtic's Van Dijk is now artistically solid after disastrous debut

THE reputation of central defenders at Celtic Park for solidity has regularly been on a par with that of a meringue left out in the rain.

Some recent incumbents at what was once called centre-half have become such figures of fun that their wearing of the Hoops should have been complemented by the donning of a large red nose and outsized shoes. Names will not be mentioned to protect the guilty, but Celtic fans became accustomed to watching defensive displays that would have given a bomb disposal expert the jitters.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk from Groningen seemed to continue the tradition. It may be lost in the mists of memory but his audition in the Champions League qualifier in Karagandy was so gruesome that his agent was approached by the makers of You've Been Framed for footage of a feckless evening. His progress since then has not been comical though it has brought a smile of satisfaction to his manager.

Celtic go into tonight's match against Kilmarnock hoping to equal a 92-year-old club record of 10 consecutive league clean sheets. They have also kept a clean sheet in a William Hill Scottish Cup match to add to that run.

It is now 855 minutes since Celtic lost a goal in the league, with Aberdeen's Niall McGinn the last person to score against them in the 45th minute of a Parkhead match in November.

The reasons for this parsimony can be debated with credit given to a variety of sources, including goalkeeper Fraser Forster who was particularly impressive against Hibernian on Sunday.

However, Van Dijk has been a substantial presence for Celtic this season. At 22, his £2.6m fee seems a snip with his name now linked to a succession of top clubs. There is evidence that Van Dijk was brought in to complement Kelvin Wilson rather than replace the Englishman who cited homesickness and moved suddenly to Nottingham Forest.

Inarguably, the Dutchman has outstripped Wilson in terms of both popularity and versatility. His goal from a free-kick against Hibernian was an almost unnecessary gilding of a rising reputation.

"I enjoy watching him play - he's brilliant," said his manager who scouted the player at Groningen.

"The first day I watched him play I thought: 'we've got one here'.

"He hasn't disappointed us. He has so many attributes to his game and the goal against Hibs didn't surprise me. I see him doing it in training but he's just not had the confidence to do it - that's another string to his bow."

Van Dijk made an immediate impression on Lennon in his first training session at Lennoxtown.

"He showed composure and strength. We felt we had young, strong boys running into him and they basically bounced off him in much the same way they did with Victor Wanyama," said Lennon, recalling the resilience of the Nigerian midfielder who was sold to Southampton for £12.5m.

"At that point we knew we had a specimen," he said of the Dutchman.

Van Dijk, though, has subtlety as well as strength. "His ability and technique is excellent. He has quick feet and can move the ball into midfield by sidestepping people.

"He's graceful on the ball and for a Dutch centre-half he can head the ball - in both boxes. That's one of the first things you look at in a centre-half," said Lennon.

Van Dijk had been scouted, and rejected, by a number of clubs but Lennon has been rewarded by backing his judgment with a fee that could quadruple if the defender leaves in the summer. Having played at under-age level for the Netherlands, the centre-half has shown an ambition to progress further.

"He's really hungry. I saw him play for Holland under-21s and Groningen and felt he could take that step forward into midfield just as Victor did," said Lennon. "He has an all-round game and I think we've won a watch. He's worth a lot more now than we paid for him."

Lennon, too, believes his defender can play for his national side and go on "to the highest level", that presumably being a leading club in England.

There are blemishes, most notably in concentration, but that is to be expected in a defender of such youth and relative inexperience.

Celtic, of course, are some way from creating a British clean-sheet record. Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar narrowly missed out on the European record during the 2008/09 season. The Dutch internationalist went 1311 minutes before Newcastle United's Peter Løvenkrands scored, breaking former Rangers keeper Chris Woods' British record of 1196 minutes set during the 1986/87 season. However, Van der Sar's record excludes conceding goals in the world club championship.

Lennon is philosophical about the praise his team is now receiving.

"If we concede one or two we get criticised left, right and centre," he said. "To have 10 clean sheets in a row is very special. Not many teams go through a series like that. I don't really read up on it, but what I don't want is people taking it for granted as it's a hard thing to do."

And any British record? "It would be nice," said Lennon. "Mind you as soon as we concede one we'll get slaughtered."

This is the inevitable fate of any defender. Kilmarnock and Kris Boyd await tonight.

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