JOZO Simunovic is desperate for compatriot Filip Benkovic to stay at Celtic for the rest of the season to build upon their partnership at the heart of the Celtic defence.

With Dedryck Boyata sitting out of the last five matches through injury, the Croatian pair have struck up an understanding at the heart of the Celtic backline.

And with interest in Boyata expected in the January transfer window, Simunovic is hoping that Benkovic’s parent club Leicester City don’t exercise their right to recall their player from his loan deal, believing the 21-year-old to be in the best place to continue his development as a player.

“For both of us it would be very good if he stays,” Simunovic said.

“Of course, there will be some big challenges for him going forward, there is no doubt about it. He needs to be patient, but he is in the right [place].

“He is playing well and growing up well. This is the right step for him because it isn’t easy to play for Celtic.

“He is going to build his performances and confidence the longer he stays here. Even if he stays longer it will be better for him.”

Meanwhile, Simunovic believes that the chastening defeat to RB Salzburg last week can act as a wake-up call to Celtic ahead of their Europa League last 32 tie against Valencia in February.

Celtic qualified for the knockout stage of the tournament despite the 2-1 loss at Celtic Park due to Rosenborg’s late equaliser against RB Leipzig in Germany, and Simunovic says that the experience of being outplayed by the Austrians has made it crystal clear to the Scottish champions just how much they will have to improve if they are to make the most of that reprieve.

“The Salzburg defeat leaves us with a lot to work on, there is no doubt about it,” he said. “I always believe every team needs to improve, even Barcelona.

“There will be fragments of their game where they can improve, and we are exactly the same.

“When you are playing against better teams then you need to improve every aspect of your play. That was shown in our matches against Salzburg.

“We were lucky, thank God, that the other result in our group went our way. So thankfully we managed to get through in the end.

“It is never nice when you lose a match, although Red Bull were the better team and deserved their win. Salzburg got to the semi-finals of last year’s Europa League and they are amazing, and were great at pressing.

“They were maybe the same level as we would expect to play in the Champions League.

“Losing to Salzburg was good in a way, because it shows us where we need to improve for the future.

“We need to show a big improvement in the last 32. We know teams won’t fancy coming to Celtic Park and it is up to us to impose our game on them.”

In the meantime, Simunovic’s immediate aim is to put further daylight between Celtic and the chasing pack at the top of the Premiership standings.

Wednesday night’s win over Motherwell put Celtic a point clear of closest challengers Rangers with a game in hand, and the defender wants to see that gap increased further before the winter break.

“We are completely focused on domestic matters,” he said.

“We need to finish [the year] the right way for sure.

“We have to be smart and right to put a gap between ourselves and second place. We want to widen the gap and be further ahead at the top of the table –that is definitely the goal.”