Once again, Ajax showed resilience, but a decisive win remained out of reach. Just as in the competition match against FC Twente, Ajax ended the UEFA Europa League match against Celtic with a 2-2 tie. A costly loss of points was the consequence.
This was a fresh start in the UEFA Europa League’s group stage. Ajax knew what they needed to do on Thursday evening in the well-filled Amsterdam ArenA: beat Scottish champion Celtic. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less. With group matches coming up against Molde FK and Fenerbahçe, no points were to be lost at home. The chance to go through the winter break in European football needed to be nurtured. This evening also marked Ajax’s 500th game in the ArenA, so a great milestone was reached right at kick-off.
Leading up to the match, many Ajacieds had referred to PSV’s fantastic achievement on Tuesday evening. The Eindhoven team defeated Manchester United in the Champions League. After Frank de Boer had complimented this performance, the CL win was also held up as an example and great motivation. In addition to Ajax, AZ and FC Groningen – the other remaining Dutch teams in the EL – were surely also inspired by this feat. The Dutch clubs and Dutch football in general desperately need points in European football.
Scotland’s reigning champion, currently performing only moderately well, needed to be sacrificed. Five days after and acceptable but resilient performance against FC Twente (went from 2-0 down to 2-2), Frank de Boer made some adjustments to his squad. Arek Milik felt the effects of this. The centre forward, in the starting line-up in Saturday’s game in the Grolsch Veste, found himself relegated to the bench a few days later in the Amsterdam ArenA. Davy Klaassen, as the newest centre forward, was to help his team score goals.
Central midfielder Viktor Fischer and – perhaps most surprisingly – left winger Amin Younes were the most notable starters. The left wing defender made his official debut as Ajacied in the ArenA. With Fischer and Younes, De Boer went for offensive flexibility. The choice for centre forward Klaassen was also easily explained. Substitutions were essential due to Riechedly Bazoer’s suspension from a red card earned in the FK Jablonec away game, during which the Amsterdam team qualified for the pool phase. Left back Mitchell Dijks returned after recovering from his groin injury. In practice, Fischer ended up being an extra forward. The Dane acted as a shadow centre forward deluxe: forward and ‘ten’ combined in one.
The opening duel in pool A begun badly for Ajax. Daley Sinkgraven’s loss of possession was the catalyst for Nir Bitton’s opening goal. The midfielder wasn’t stopped and shot the ball diagonally into the far corner: 0-1.
Just like they had against Twente, Ajax fought their way back from a deficit. Fischer’s beautiful tying goal followed Younes’ textbook preparation work. Ajax’s left winger – playing with the classic and fitting number 11 – cut through to the inside, after which the ball landed at Fischer’s feet via Klaassen. The Dane, who had scored in Enschede on Saturday as a substitute, proved to be razor-sharp in his finish once again.
Three minutes before halftime, the physically strong Scots scored again. Two minutes after Cillessen had made a grand save, a goal from a corner was scored, bringing the score to 1-2. Ajax could fault itself for allowing Mikael Lustig to attack, unhindered, with a header. Ajax was in catch-up mode once again.
With fresh reinforcement s Milik (in for Younes) and Thulani Serero (Sinkgraven), Ajax needed to score some goals in the last half hour. Celtic was only able to escape the mounting Amsterdam pressure sporadically. In one of the few Scottish counters, Leigh Griffiths shot the ball into the side net.
In the last fifteen minutes, the Scottish champion was forced to continue with only ten men after a red card (second yellow) for Emilio Izaquirre. De Boer applied pressure on Celtic by bringing in Lasse Schöne. The veteran replaced his countryman Fischer. Schöne proved his worth nine minutes later. A free kick from the left sailed perfectly past Craig Gordon without any intervention whatsoever: 2-2.
In the nerve-wrecking final minutes, a much-desired third goal wasn’t in the cards. A header by Milik hit the post. The desperately needed win remained out of reach. Still, Ajax showed resilience. And for the second time this week, De Boer’s team ended a match 2-2. Ajax could have given itself a better start in the pool stage. The away match against Molde FK in two weeks needs to won at all costs.