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Latest piece of Lennon's jigsaw in praise of one of his best fitting

LEIGH GRIFFITHS has played alongside Virgil van Dijk on only five occasions.

RETURN ON INVESTMENT: Celtic could quadruple the £2.6m they spent on Virgil van Dijk after the defender's impressive debut season in Scotland. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

However, that has been enough to appreciate why the Dutchman is considered the man most likely to succeed him as the Scottish Football Writers' Player of the Year and to follow Victor Wanyama on the transfer trail which leads to the English top flight.

It is becoming a well-worn path south, and one paved with gold for the Parkhead club. Celtic generated over £20m last summer from the sale of the Kenyan midfielder, and his team-mates, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson.

All three have been sorely missed by a team which, in the January window, was also shorn of the experienced Joe Ledley.

Like Van Dijk, Fraser Forster is expected to be the subject of significant offers when the window reopens in a summer which the goalkeeper hopes will see him travel to the World Cup finals in Brazil as part of the England squad.

However, at least the 25-year-old will by then have given Celtic four excellent seasons. Van Dijk, by contrast, is still getting his talented feet under the table at a club he only joined in June.

Such has been the impact made in his debut season that the £2.6m paid to Groningen could be quadrupled. It would be a healthy return for their investment, but would also leave a massive hole in the heart of the Celtic side Neil Lennon has been carefully rebuilding over the past nine months.

Griffiths, who only returned from England on the last day of January to become the latest piece placed in the manager's jigsaw, recognises how damaging the departure of the 22-year-old could be.

"Virgil is being tipped for Player of the Year, and I can understand why," the striker said. "He's a very good player and still young.

"I would definitely say he's good enough to play in the top four in the English Premiership. He is that good, and he's one of those you just can't put a price on. He's been so valuable for us.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of offers coming in for him in the summer. If that happens, then it's up to the board at Celtic [to decide] what it would take to sell him, but I wouldn't want to see him go."

Both Manchester clubs have been credited with an interest in Van Dijk, while his tweet at the weekend of a 'selfie' taken alongside Chelsea's David Luiz has fuelled even more speculation.

"You can totally understand why big clubs want him," continued Griffiths. "But we want him to stay, and the manager can build the team around him.

"We're going to be in the Champions League again next season, albeit we've still got the qualifiers first, so there are big games to come. I just hope Virgil takes that into consideration and, if he wants to stay, it will be great for the team and the fans." With or without Van Dijk alongside him, Griffiths is already savouring the prospect of testing himself at Champions League level for the first time.

It is a quantum leap from where he was just six weeks ago, sitting on the bench for Wolves as they jousted for points with the likes of Gillingham, Shrewsbury Town and Carlisle United.

The striker has never been short of confidence, and is ready to meet what he considers to be the ultimate challenge of a player. "I've always said you haven't made it unless you've played Champions League football, and I stick by that," he explained. "It's the pinnacle of any player's career when it comes to club football. That's where you want to be, playing at the highest level.

"I was at Dundee when I first said that to myself, sitting in the house watching Champions League football."

Griffiths has managed to attend a few major matches at Celtic Park, unrecognised by his fellow observers whose attention was focused on who-did-what on the pitch rather than who-sat-where in the stand.

The experience has whetted his appetite to be at the heart of the action, and the bigger the opponent, the better.

Griffiths, who was helping promote BT Sport's live coverage of Friday's SPFL match against Kilmarnock, continued: "Hopefully, we can do the business in the qualifiers and draw a big team in the group stages so that we can show everyone what we can do.

"I've been to big Champions League nights at Parkhead because my agent, Darren [Jackson] has a few good contacts at Celtic and he sorted me out. I was at the Manchester United match when they drew 1-1, and also when they lost 3-2 to Barcelona. They were great occasions, and I want to be involved in them next season.

"I've proved I can score for Celtic in league games and, hopefully, I can take that into the Champions League. It's a big jump from the Scottish Premiership, but you want to keep testing yourself."

There will be many only too willing to let him know if he fails. Griffiths has already marked his first hat trick for the club by commenting on the fact his signing did not meet with universal approval among the fans.

He is already winning over many of them, and is happy to continue proving doubters wrong.

"There were people who didn't think I was good enough for international football," he reflected. "But, in Gordon Strachan's eyes, I was good enough to start two very important qualifiers.

"If I can do that, then my next step is the Champions League and, hopefully, I can take that in my stride."

BT Sport will bring fans six live SPFL matches in March including Brechin v Rangers (23 March). Visit btsport.com

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