THE improvement in Carl Starfelt’s form has clearly been recognised by the Celtic supporters. That much was clear when Jota was announced as man of the match over the Celtic Park tannoy in the dying embers of the win over St Johnstone at the weekend to quizzical looks all around.

It wasn’t that the Celtic winger had played badly and didn’t deserve to be in the shake-up for the award, but just that to most of the crowd present, Starfelt had been the outstanding player on the pitch.

The numbers backed up the eye-test. According to Opta, the Swede had registered the most accurate passes with 128, won the most duels (16), made the most successful tackles (three) and completed the most interceptions (three) of any other player on the park. But as well as registering statistics that will no doubt please manager Ange Postecoglou, Starfelt is also simply looking much more comfortable and at ease at the heart of the Celtic defence.

There is little doubt that Starfelt took time to settle in Scotland following his £4m move from Rubin Kazan in the summer, exemplified by his calamitous own goal against AZ Alkmaar in the final Europa League qualifying round.

Celtic got away with that one, in part due to Starfelt showing admirable character to rally in the second half of that match and ensure that the Dutch outfit couldn’t overturn the aggregate scoreline.

It had been a moment that was symptomatic of his shaky start to life at Celtic though, and one that further fuelled growing scepticism at the time among supporters over his suitability for the club.

Postecoglou has taken on board some of the responsibility for Starfelt’s less than convincing early displays for Celtic though, explaining how a lack of alternative bodies worked against him.

“I felt for Carl because we threw Carl in and I think he had three or four different centre-halves as partners and he was new himself,” Postecoglou said.

“People were judging him on what they saw. I knew there was more in him and I still think there is.”

One of the factors that seems to have contributed to his recent upturn in performance level has been the steadying influence of Cameron Carter-Vickers alongside him at centre-back.

Postecoglou has hung his hat on the pairing, with young defender Stephen Welsh perhaps entitled to feel hard done by at the time as he found himself consigned to the bench. But with each passing game, the Celtic manager’s faith in Starfelt and Carter-Vickers appears to be further vindicated.

After a rather chaotic start to the season in terms of centre-back combinations, the more settled approach has now led to clean sheets in each of the last three matches, with Celtic seeing off Motherwell, Ferencvaros and St Johnstone by the same 2-0 scoreline.

“The more you play alongside someone, the more you begin to understand each other,” Starfelt said of the partnership.

“But it’s not just about two players, it’s about the whole team and I think we have so many games that you have to change players.

“But it’s about having a strong core on the pitch. When you have that, you change players here and there and it will still be stable.

“I feel we are taking a step in the right direction.”

The influence and experience of Joe Hart has undoubtedly contributed to that improvement too, and the understanding between the triumvirate has Celtic looking far less panicked and much more solid than in the early weeks of the season.

So much so, that the return of Christopher Jullien may present manager Postecoglou with a dilemma, when for so long it looked as though the Celtic defence was crying out for the return of the £7m man as soon as humanly possible.

The form of Starfelt and Carter-Vickers though will allow Postecoglou to slowly bleed Jullien back into first-team action rather than throwing him straight in following his lengthy injury lay-off. The Frenchman has been out since colliding with a post as he cleared the ball from the goalline in a match against Dundee United at Celtic Park in January, after all.

There will be far less of a temptation for Postecoglou to expedite his comeback knowing that he has defenders he can rely on in the meantime, cutting down the risk of Jullien suffering any relapse of his injury by being pressed into action too soon.

All that being said, there is still the odd aberration or two in Starfelt when he loses concentration, as he did late on against Ferencvaros before being bailed out by an excellent Hart save. These errors have been fewer and further between of late, but that moment was a reminder that he has to ensure he retains his focus, particularly when coming up against stronger opposition.

All in all though, Starfelt’s emergence as a largely solid, reliable centre-back who is comfortable in passing the ball within the Postecoglou system in these last few games has been a timely boost for both player and club, and he deserves credit for clearing up many of the doubts that pockmarked the early days of his Celtic career.