Neil Lennon last night paid tribute to his depleted team after watching Celtic resuscitate their Champions League hopes with victory over Ajax last night.
Celtic 2 - 1 Ajax
Scorers - Celtic: Forrest 45, Kayal 49; Ajax: Schone 90
The home side overcame the loss of suspended skipper Scott Brown and the injured Kris Commons to secure a vital victory.
“Original total football”, pointed out a banner in the corner of the stadium and Celtic completed the task of putting Ajax in their place. The victory lifts Lennon’s side off the bottom of Group H and deposits their beaten opponents there instead.
It sets up a hugely significant game in the Amsterdam Arena on 6 November in the ‘second leg’ of a double-header that will have a huge bearing on Celtic’s ambitions to secure European football after Christmas.
A penalty from James Forrest on the stroke of half time set Celtic on their way and Beram Kayal doubled the home team’s lead after 54 minutes.
A late goal from Ajax substitute Lasse Schone cut the deficit but the final whistle sounded soon after and meant Celtic avoided having to survive any longer with only ten men.
Nir Biton was sent off with three minutes remaining and only ten minutes after coming on following a lunge at Ajax playmaker Thulani Serero.
In contrast to the strong backing he gave Brown after his red card against Barcelona at the beginning of this month, Lennon was prepared to mount no such case for Biton, who he angrily waved down the tunnel.
“I have no complaints, he was late,” he said. “I’m not convinced there was contact but he left the trailing leg high – although if he had been playing on Saturday at Easter Road he’d have probably got a booking for that.”
Lennon preferred to concentrate on those who did not let the occasion get the better of them.
As well as Brown and Commons, Celtic were also without Adam Matthews, who played in their opening two Champions League games but was absent last night because of an injury shoulder.
“You have to give huge credit to the players here – this is their 19th competitive game already,” Lennon said.
“That’s half a season. The squad is really stretched with players out through injury, coming back from injury and players suspended.
“We can’t compete with a lot of clubs at this level when we lose quality players and we were without three huge players tonight,” said Lennon. “But the players who came in did their job.”
Forrest kept a particularly cool head when forced to delay taking his penalty after a flurry of bookings following Stefano Denswel’s trip on Anthony Stokes. Ajax goalkeeper Jesper Cillessen also sought to add to the 21-year-old’s nerves by wandering to the edge of the box to seek advice from a team-mate.
Forrest had volunteered to step in for Commons and did not let anyone down, striking a strong penalty into the net to the goalkeeper’s left.
“He keeps telling he’s never missed a penalty so this morning we had a chat about it and we decided he’d step up and take it because obviously Kris was out,” said Lennon.
“There was a lot of gamesmanship going on with their keeper but he kept his cool. It was a big moment in the game just before half-time and set us up very nicely for the second half.”
Kayal provided Celtic with a degree of comfort eight minutes after the interval when his deflected shot found the corner of Cillessen’s net.
“I thought Beram was worth his weight in gold tonight,” said Lennon.
“He was worth two goals tonight – he scored one and his tackle on [Viktor] Fischer in the first half was huge for us as well. So he can be very proud of his performance, we’re delighted with that. He’s been a little bit flat since his heavy injury but that was more like him tonight.
“I also thought Izaguirre was fantastic as was Samaras again. Forrest got better as the game went on and the stalwarts in the team – Ambrose, Lustig Van Dijk, Mulgrew – are turning into some group of players.”
While Lennon had suggested that his side could afford to draw last night’s clash, the three points means a draw in Amsterdam next month will count as a productive result. The 1-1 draw between Milan and Barcelona last night leaves Celtic training the Italian side by just two points. Lennon described the result as a “massive win” in the context of the group.
“It leaves us in a very good position,” the manager added. “We’ll have to get a good result at Ajax if we can and on tonight’s evidence that’s going to be very difficult.
“But it’s not beyond us.”
Ajax manager Frank de Boer feltthat the better team had lost on the night. “Celtic didn’t create anything although they scored twice, once with a penalty,” said the former Rangers player.
“We dominated the game but only scored once and should have equalised before they got their second. It is going to be very hard for us to get second place but I have confidence in the third place. We have one point and if we win at home we will be one point ahead of Celtic.
“It will be difficult but if we play that way again... eight times out of ten the best team wins and I thought we were the best team. But only goals count and we will have to do it in the Arena.”