AJAX didn’t just close the roof in the Amsterdam Arena on Wednesday night.
Scorer: Ajax: Schone 51
They shut the door on the face of their visitors, robbed them of some hope in this group and sent them home feeling an awful lot worse about themselves than when they arrived in a happy-clappy state on Tuesday afternoon.
Neil Lennon’s team rallied at the death and tried to pull a point out of the bag, which they would not have deserved. Celtic had possession and crosses and desperation in those closing minutes but Ajax had all the danger. They forced Fraser Forster into a fine save. They hit his post. Then they sucked up the bit of pressure that Celtic threw at them and secured their victory. It would have been a nonsense had this match ended any other way.
This was not what Lennon had in mind when he spoke of the importance of looking after the ball and showing ambition and bravery. He picked a team that was full of attacking intent, but if you want to attack then it’s not a bad idea to have the ball at the time and Celtic rarely had it. Too often when they had possession they quickly gave it away. Most of the time they gave it away cheaply and it was an epidemic in their ranks. All of them were at it. Too many played below themselves. Too many brought too little to the table.
Lennon had pinned much hope on Kris Commons providing the creativity, but he couldn’t. And it frustrated him. It frustrated the lot of them, Lennon most of all. Here were Ajax with a back four containing a 20-year-old, two 21-year-olds and a 22-year-old in a team with fragile confidence and in a stadium that was ready to turn on them the way they have turned on them in recent weeks and Celtic could do nothing to take advantage. They had one or two decent opportunities but they were never convincing and now they have an enormous job on their hands in getting themselves back into some kind of contention in this group.
Frank De Boer’s side had their backs to the wall last night and it showed. They had tempo and desire borne out of desperation. Had they lost here then there was nowhere for them to go in Europe this season and they knew it. And they played like it. Their attitude was excellent and they owned the ball for the most part. It would have been a travesty had they not won. The fact that their victory was down to a goal that would have the Ajax immortals nodding in admiration was all the sweeter for them.
Lennon had said on Tuesday that he had seen some things in Ajax’s defeat by Vitesse last weekend that interested him, some things that could be adopted and used against their hosts. Clearly, he wasn’t the only one burning the midnight oil in front of the DVD player. De Boer was playing the same game and his conclusion was that Ajax could get joy down Emilio Izaguirre’s side of the pitch. And they did. Lasse Schone, the match-winner, was a constant pest to the Honduran. Schone’s full-back, Ricardo van Rhijn, also had his moments.
One of them – a big one – was his cross for Siem de Jong 18 minutes into the first half. De Jong was playing up front instead of his usual midfield role and he got in between the Celtic centre-halves to meet Van Rijhn’s precise cross. He should have scored – and would have done had Fraser Forster not pulled off the save, diving low to his right to paw it away from danger. The Englishman had saved his team earlier on as well, tipping away a Stefano Denswil free kick.
Before their goal, Ajax had hardly bombarded Forster, but their dominance was obvious and there was always a strong sense that sooner or later they were going to make it pay. Just before the break, Celtic had a lucky escape when Schone almost got himself on the end of a delivery out wide, his furious berating of himself indicating just how close he was to scoring. No matter. Six minutes into the new half he had no such worries. That’s when the Arena was lit up by a goal of the most delicious quality.
Ajax carved up Celtic with their one-touch passing and movement and precision, Davy Klaassen, Thulani Serero and the excellent Schone exchanging a couple of one-twos that had Celtic bamboozled. All of this culminated in Serero back-heeling beautifully to Schone who went through one-on-one with Forster and beat him to the goalkeeper’s left-hand side. Cruyff in his pomp couldn’t have done it better.
From such optimism coming here, Celtic were now staring at a new and grim reality. Ajax didn’t just go ahead of them on the scoreline, they went ahead of them in the Champions League table. From third and looking upwards at AC Milan and daring to dream about second, Celtic were now last and were having nightmares about total elimination from Europe, the crumb of the Europa League now in serious danger of being snatched from them.
They needed to find something – and they did, but it only further illustrated some of the problems they have had in this competition this season. A lack of ruthlessness, poor decision-making, opportunities spurned. We saw all of that as they attempted to play catch-up. One moment encapsulated the problem. It came not long after Schone scored and it involved James Forrest, scampering away down the right-hand side and oblivious to Anthony Stokes in space in the box. By the time Forrest tried to play the pass, it was too late. Ajax recovered and blocked the delivery. Forrest’s awareness and speed of thought just weren’t good enough.
You could say the same about the entire Celtic effort. They came with a vow of ambition, but were undone by a moment of Ajax genius and far, far too many moments of their own wretched carelessness.
Ajax: Cillessen, Van Rhijn, Veltman, Denswil, Boilesen, Klaassen (Poulsen 83), Blind, Serero (Fischer 72), Schone, De Jong, Sigthorsson (van der Hoorn 90). Subs not used: Vermeer, Moisander, Andersen, Hoesen.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Mulgrew, Stokes (Boerrigter 73), Commons (Pukki 81), Kayal (Ledley 77), Izaguirre, Forrest, Samaras. Subs not used: Zaluska, Rogic, Balde, Fisher.