CELTIC produced their worst Champions League performance of the season last night, going down meekly to Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena in a display that Neil Lennon described as “insipid”.
Celtic must now defeat AC Milan at Parkhead next month or they are officially out of the Champions League. They are again bottom of the group. Barcelona sealed their place in the last 16 following their victory over Milan.
On top of everything else, Celtic could be landed in trouble following the behaviour of a section of their fans inside the stadium. Sectarian chanting directed at Frank de Boer was audible in the Arena before kick-off. Elsewhere, in another corner of the ground a group of Ajax fans hoisted a banner that had the words “Fenian Bastards” on it. Quite what UEFA will make of that is a question for the coming days.
There was also reports last night that more fighting had taken place in Amsterdam city centre and that 15 men were arrested – “mostly Celtic supporters”, according to Dutch police – after a mob ambushed plain-clothes police officers in Dam Square hours before the game.
Having travelled with confidence, Celtic were a desperate disappointment. Lennon tried to keep a lid on his anger in the aftermath but there was no doubting his frustration at the carelessness and flatness of his players.
His team were beaten by a terrific goal from Lasse Schone early in the second half, a move that cut the Celtic defence to ribbons. Celtic had a few chances later on but wasted each one. Anthony Stokes shot tamely when in good position, Beram Kayal fired over awfully when through on goal and James Forrest failed to pick out Stokes in the box when the Dubliner was in space. Celtic got what they deserved, said Lennon.
“I thought we were very disappointing in the first half. We were better in the second half and made opportunities to score goals but we didn’t take them,” said Lennon. “When Schone scored their goal we were just starting to get a foothold in the game. We missed some decent opportunities, particularly the Forrest one when we were two v one. You were thinking ‘goal’ and that would have got us back in the game.
“But we were very flat first half. I think some players will have regrets about the game tonight because they were nowhere near their best. At this level you can’t have that.
“It makes it very, very difficult [to qualify for the last 16].
However, the whole thing could flip around again if we beat Milan and Barcelona come here and take something off Ajax. But we have to beat Milan now. It’s imperative that we do that to have any chance of qualification. And we will have to play better particularly than on the first-half evidence tonight.”
All is not lost for Celtic but the scale of their challenge now is becoming extremely steep. What they know for sure is that if they lose to AC Milan at Celtic Park next month they are out of the Champions League. They would be incapable of catching the Italians even if Lennon’s team were to go to Barcelona in their last group match and win.
A victory over Milan would, of course, put Celtic right back in the hunt but the likelihood is that if they are to finish second in the group then they are not only going to need three points against the Italians but probably another point from Barcelona on top of that. It’s possible, but it’s all becoming very complicated now for Celtic. This was a on the last 16 then there is always the Europa League, but that is difficult to assess as well. It may not transpire, but if Celtic and Ajax finish level on points for that third spot then Ajax would take it because of the head-to-head results.
Schone didn’t just score a brilliant winner last night, he also scored a consolation goal at Parkhead and it is that away goal that would favour Ajax ahead of Celtic if both sides were locked together on the conclusion of the group stage.
“It was our play in general that was just not like us,” added Lennon. “We looked second best, particularly in the forward areas. We were insipid in the first half. The second half was a lot better and lot more competitive. We created some good chances on the counter-attack. That was encouraging but I wanted a lot more from my players in the second half and I got more. But goals change games. Ajax will say it was a good goal from their point of view. But from ours it was a poor goal to give away.
“There were some positives – some very good performances – but predominantly from players in defence in midfield. Away from home it’s always difficult. But we are creating chances. We didn’t work the goalkeeper enough for my liking. But there were opportunities when we could have been better with the final ball.
“And that’s been a concern in the last few weeks, domestically and at this level as well. You have to say Ajax played well in parts of the game. But that was down to us not doing the things that we are normally good at. It’s an opportunity lost but all is not lost.
“We have to regroup, which we will. There wasn’t a great deal in the game but our quality was missing at times and I need a bit more from some players. But we will look to Celtic Park now and try to turn things around again. We have to improve our away form. We played well in Milan but we didn’t play well in the first half tonight. It’s not enough. Even though we didn’t play well it was still 0-0 at half time. We actually got better and ended up conceding a goal, so again that’s a frustration.”
Frustrating didn’t quite cover it. This was a sickening night for the Celtic manager.
Lennon’s counterpart, Frank de Boer, refused to write off Celtic’s chances of qualifying, however. He said: “Celtic still have a chance, they are still only two points behind Milan. There was more pressure on us after the game in Scotland so we are relieved.
“It is still wide open and we have still to go to the San Siro. We also have to play against Barcelona and a point will be a bonus point. You saw from Celtic last year (against Barcelona) that anything is possible. They are already qualified and we have nothing to lose.”
De Boer insisted his side deserved to win last night but said they could have made it easier for themselves by getting a second. He said: “We know if we play like we have to play, and the way we used to play, we know we can win and we deserved to win.
“The first half was very good, we had some good moments and we were very happy to score to make it 1-0, but we forgot to score the second which would have made it easier for us. But we looked a bit tired and maybe that is why.”