NEWCASTLE UNITED face a major battle to land defensive target Kristoffer Ajer, with German side Bayer Leverkusen increasingly confident of pulling off a deal for the Celtic centre-half.

With Federico Fernandez and Fabian Schar both facing uncertain futures as they approach the end of their respective contracts, Steve Bruce has made strengthening the heart of his back four a key early-summer priority.

Ajer has been in Newcastle’s sights for the last couple of seasons, and the 23-year-old is expected to leave Parkhead this summer as part of a major Celtic overhaul.

Newcastle officials have held talks over Ajer’s availability, and are understood to be prepared to pay £6m to land the Norwegian, who first joined Celtic as a teenager in 2016.

Bruce had been hoping to complete a deal before other clubs were able to firm up their own interest, but Ajer’s representatives have been talking to teams from across the continent and Bayer Leverkusen have emerged as strong competitors for the defender’s signature.

Leverkusen’s recruitment team held discussions with Ajer’s negotiating team this weekend, and are increasingly confident of reuniting the centre-half with his former Celtic defensive partner, Jeremie Frimpong, this summer.

Bayer finished sixth in the Bundesliga last season, qualifying for the Europa League, and the opportunity to play European football is one of the factors that could result in Ajer leaning towards a move to Germany rather than Tyneside.

Celtic have accepted it is in their best interests to sell the defender, who is about to enter the final year of his current deal, and would ideally like to resolve the situation as quickly as possible in order to be able to move on with their own rebuilding.

There could be a fair bit of contact between the Glasgow club and Newcastle this summer as Celtic are one of the clubs to have expressed an interest in signing goalkeeper Freddie Woodman.

Woodman’s loan spell at Swansea City came to an end when the Welsh club were beaten in the Championship play-off final at the weekend, but the 24-year-old stated after the game that he would be keen to return to the Liberty Stadium next season.

Swansea would like to retain him, but Celtic have emerged as rival suitors, along with a number of other clubs in the Championship.

Ideally, Bruce would like to retain Woodman, who is regarded as one of the most promising young goalkeepers in the country. However, Martin Dubravka is firmly established as Newcastle’s number one, with Karl Darlow providing experienced cover. If Woodman spends next season on Tyneside, it is hard to imagine him playing much football.

Newcastle could agree to another loan spell, but with transfer funds expected to be extremely limited with Mike Ashley reluctant to invest as he takes on the Premier League in an attempt to force through a sale, Bruce might conclude it is time to cash in on Woodman, who is contracted to St James’ Park until the summer of 2023. If Newcastle were to sell this summer, they could expect to receive at least £10m.

Meanwhile, with the Magpies expected to confirm their retained list soon, Christian Atsu has confirmed his departure from the club on social media. Atsu made 121 senior appearances for Newcastle, scoring eight goals.