“We simply can’t lose”, said Frank de Boer prior to the third group phase Champions League match. But that’s exactly what happened in the lively Celtic Park. Celtic took much better advantage of their opportunities than Ajax did, and thanks to a penalty just before the break and a quick goal after it, earned three points on their home territory: 2-1.
Where De Boer had come up with major surprises in the first two Champions League games this season – Boilesen as a handy left back in Barcelona, and a starting spot for De Sa against Milan, he had no tactical surprises in store against Celtic. That’s logical, since De Boer knew that there were two doubtful cases among his nineteen man selection. Both Niklas Moisander and Ricardo van Rhijn had showed signs of physical discomfort during Monday’s training. The Finnish central defender was forced to retire on match day, leaving Ajax without one of the experienced players that were sorely needed in the first of two matches against Celtic. Although when De Boer was confronted with his very young defensive duo during the pre-game show, he couldn’t suppress a smile: “Isn’t it great?”
The only change in the line-up compared to Saturday’s top match against Twente (1-1) was that Daley Blind was on left back again, as opposed to central midfield. This spot was taken by Christian Poulsen in this third Champions League group match.
Celtic coach Neil Lennon was forced to improvise much more than De Boer. He was missing two of his most important players: captain Scott Brown, who was suspended, and Kris Commons, who has a hamstring injury. Emilio Izaguirre, Mikael Lustig and James Forrest were new on the team as of last Sunday. Georgios Samaras – a familiar face for us, as he has previously played at sc Heerenveen – acted as captain in Brown’s absence.
After an impressive pre-show in a sold-out Celtic Park, the clock finally struck at eight forty-five. Ajax was looking for its first win. Celtic, in addition to birthday-celebrating Samaras, had Pukki and Stokes to pressure the young defensive duo. It was soon clear that the acting captain was pulling the strings. Samaras orchestrated the play with Celtic, but the greatest opportunity was on the opposite side of the field. In the thirteenth minute, right back Lustig did was Pukki had just failed to do previously. After that opportunity, Ajax took over the reins and built on the dominance it enjoyed between the twentieth and 35th minute. At the moment when the crowd turned its back to the field, Ajax almost scored the opening goal. The Amsterdam team, facing the backs of the fans who had the upper hand at that moment, turned the pressure on. This almost resulted in a 0-1 score in the thirtieth minute, but Christian Poulsen’s attempt, after a good free kick from Viktor Fischer, hit the post. It was only once in a while that Ajax let Celtic escape, and keeper Jasper Cillessen was outstanding at those times. But just before the break, things went downhill for the Amsterdam team.
Referee Ivan Babek punished Denswil, who had been active on Stokes, with the heaviest sentence, a penalty kick. Cillessen sought and found support with the fans, the players had intense encounters in the box, which cost both Ajax (Poulsen and Veltman) as Celtic (Van Dijk) yellow cards. All of this commotion just delayed the inevitable, as James Forrest pulled the trigger for Celtic, 1-0.
Ajax got a great opportunity in the second half to correct the balance on the field. Thulani Serero was face to face with Forster in the 53rd minute, but the South African was bettered by the keeper. He was thus forced to face this once again, which promptly resulted in a 2-0 score. Serero couldn’t prevent Berem Kayal from scoring from outside the box – with Denswil lightly touching the ball – into the far corner, 2-0.
Ajax was roused and sought a goal immediately. Sigthórsson just missed with just Forster in front of him. The play then went back at forth with lightning speed. But Ajax was trying to force a goal too fast. In the 68th minute, De Boer sent Boilesen onto the field and Blind took the position of the substituted Poulsen at midfield, and a few minutes later, De Sa came in for Fischer. With ten minutes left, Lasse Schöne came in for Van Rhijn. The score didn’t change until extra time. Serero (just over) and Blind (save by Forster) had come close to scoring, but it was Lasse Schöne who brought the score to 2-1 in extra time. By that time, Celtic was down to ten men, as Celtic substitute Nir Biton had received a red card a few minutes before after a ridiculous charge on Serero. Neil Lennon was pleased afterwards, despite the red card: “Ajax gave us a hard time, they move very well. But we played an outstanding second half. We’ll need to play very well in Amsterdam in two weeks to post a good result there, but I think we’re in a position to do that.”
Frank de Boer was disappointed with the outcome, but satisfied with his players. “I’m a bit torn. If, at this level, you can dominate and create many opportunities – we don’t give any opportunities away – then you deserve to win. The only time that we gave an opportunity away was when it became 2-0. You can’t really call that penalty an opportunity, it was a youthful error. He just forgot what he was supposed to do. He made the wrong decision. Before that, they didn’t have any chances. We came through under pressure consistently. You need to score the 1-1 goal and, one second later, the ball’s on the other side. And yes, football is about scoring and I’m disappointed in that respect. It will be tough to make second place, but I’m still hopeful about third. The best team wins eight times out of ten, and I thought we were the best team. Now we need to do it in the ArenA.”
This trip, which carried such high expectations, ended on a sour note. Celtic will be at the ArenA in two weeks. Ajax may then be able to avenge this disappointing loss in Scotland. It wasn’t due to the fans, that’s for sure. They held their Ajax scarves high after the match was over. For them, there’s no better club than Ajax.