FILIP Benkovic is confident he can strike up a solid defensive partnership with Jozo Simunovic in the absence of Dedryck Boyata and help Celtic move back to the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership.

Benkovic and Boyata have dovetailed beautifully for the Scottish champions in the 2018/19 campaign and have helped them keep clean sheets in no fewer than eight of the 10 matches they have started together.

However, Belgian internationalist Boyata limped off with a hamstring strain in the second-half of the Betfred Cup final win over Aberdeen at Hampden last Sunday and is set to be out for at least another fortnight.

Simunovic came on for the injured centre half and helped the Parkhead club to retain their trophy and then played in the Ladbrokes Premiership match against Motherwell at Fir Park on Wednesday evening.

Brendan Rodgers’s side dropped two points and failed to reclaim top spot in the Premiership table in midweek when Danny Johnston netted with three minutes of regulation time remaining.

Benkovic, who was loaned out to Celtic for the season in the summer after signing for Leicester City from Dinamo Zagreb for £12 million, is determined for his team to bounce back against surprise leaders Kilmarnock at Parkhead this afternoon.

The Croatian played with Simunovic briefly at Dinamo at the start of his career and feels that he and his fellow Zagreb-born defender can develop a good understanding in the coming weeks.

“I thought we were good together against Motherwell,” he said. “They got one chance and they scored at the end. We know each other well. I’m looking forward to playing with him in the next games.

“I think I can have a good partnership with Jozo. We speak the same language and we know each other well. We must be like a team behind each other. I’m positive about the overall situation.”

Benkovic added: “I was disappointed with the result against Motherwell because we had the opportunity to go top of the table. We had some bad luck during the game. We gave everything to the game. We knew how important it was, like every game for Celtic.

“But this is football and you must instead think of positive things and be focused on the next game which is Saturday.

“The manager spoke to us after the Motherwell and said that he’d expected us to win, which is normal. He didn’t speak to much. He’s professional and he told us just to work on the Saturday game because it’s very important.

“We couldn’t go top of the league during the week. We could’ve been points on front. But we want to do this next game. We have a lot of games in front of us and the league has a long way to go yet.

“Saturday is an even more important game for us. Kilmarnock have done well this season and we respect their team.

“But we must look for the win in this game. We want to come back to winning ways. We are 100 per cent focused on this game.”

Benkovic and Simunovic will certainly have plenty of opportunities to play together this month – after the Kilmarnock match today they have a massive Europa League fixture with Salzburg at Parkhead on Thursday night and then games against Hibernian, Motherwell, Dundee, Aberdeen and Rangers.

The 21-year-old feels the demanding run will help him develop physically - something he is keen to do in Scotland - and improve further as a player.

“When I came here I knew that I had parts of my game to progress," he said. "It was also on a physical side of the game. This is important for me. Step by step I get better and better. But I need to still work, I want to be better than I am now. Every day I want to be better.”

“I think we’ve done well until now and in December there are a lot of games. We must give 100 per cent because it will be really tough games. They are almost every two or three days. We must be at one with each other.”