On A potentially seminal day in Champions League Group H, Celtic could move up to second or drop to last depending on what happens here in Amsterdam and what occurs when Barcelona host AC Milan at Camp Nou.
Every Champions League has a night when things crystallise and this could be it.
Ajax, through their manager Frank de Boer, have admitted to feeling the pressure and, even though Neil Lennon hasn’t said the same, you can be sure that his pulse is quickening now. Matchday four could be the turning point, for good or bad.
Lennon has identified Kris Commons as the critical player for his team ahead of tonight’s clash with Ajax. He is looking to Commons to add devilment and ruthlessness in front of goal, qualities that Celtic have been missing so far in the group stage.
“I would snap your hand off for a point,” said Lennon, “but we know this team is capable of winning. And we know this team is capable of losing. We have to strike a balance on how we approach this game.
“The key could be how we attack and whether we can find quality at the end of it, because we have quality in the team, with [Georgios] Samaras and Commons coming back. Kris could be pivotal because they don’t know him and he might surprise a few of them as well.”
Commons was absent through injury when Celtic beat Ajax 2-1 at Parkhead a fortnight ago. And he was missed. Lennon’s team won the match but didn’t create a whole lot and it is that missing invention that the Celtic manager was getting at yesterday when he mentioned Commons, one of his real big-occasion players.
“I think we can pass it better than we have done in the last couple of games and that’s certainly an area we can do better in against Ajax.” Commons is the go-to man.
Lennon spoke about the need for a big result, a marquee away victory that all teams must achieve if they are to progress to the last 16 of the Champions League. Last season, they got it in Moscow. This season, they might have got it in Milan, had they not been so wasteful in front of goal and then so careless in those final minutes when Milan scored twice.
“We’ve had a couple of decent results [in recent years],” said Lennon. “The Europa League helped. Udinese and Rennes [a pair of draws away from home], then we got that big result in Moscow last year. But I need to find that again. If we want to qualify then we need to get something away from home and everyone will look at this game as our best chance to do that.
“There is a lot of confidence going into the game from a lot of people. But I have to be very wary and I still make Ajax favourites but only because they are at home. There is a lot of confidence in the team but we don’t want to be overconfident. This is an Ajax team that was minutes away from beating AC Milan so, despite their current form not being what it should be, they are still a very formidable team at home.”
Ajax are under something of a siege at present. They lost at home to Vitesse Arnhem in the Eredivisie on Saturday night and have won only one of their last five games and that one was a Cup match against ASWH, an amateur team. They have been held goalless at the Arena in their last two league matches against Vitesse and Waalwijk and were booed off after the latter. These are challenging times for De Boer’s young side. Only one of his regular starters is over the age of 24.
“Our away form has been good and I don’t think these players fear playing away from home,” said Lennon. “I hope so anyway because we will have to play well over here. It’s a crucial game in the group now and, if we can prevail, than it sets us up. If we don’t then we are in a fight for third place, realistically. I thought we played really well in Milan in terms of controlling the game for large periods. I don’t remember doing that in my playing days away from home. That was the most galling thing, that we ended up losing that game.”
Lennon has studied Ajax’s 1-0 defeat to Vitesse and planned to look at it again last night in the company of his players. He said the match gave him much food for thought.
“Vitesse passed the ball better. In the second half, Vitesse were the better team for long periods,” he added. “I don’t know if that’s a confidence thing or just Vitesse going at them with nothing to fear. They played very well and I was really impressed by the way they went about it. And it was a similar set up to the way we play. So it’s given us a lot to think about it. We’ll look at the game again and see where we can hurt them.”
A significant step towards the last 16 or a grim retreat to the bottom of the pile. This is moving day in the Champions League.