IN a group which has so far proved every bit as unforgiving as expected, Celtic reach a Champions League crossroads tonight.
If they hope to follow the path which can lead them to the knockout phase of the tournament for a second successive season, conventional wisdom would suggest they need to claim victory over Ajax in Glasgow in the first of their back-to-back Group H meetings with the Dutch champions.
It is not a view to which Neil Lennon necessarily subscribes, however, as he targets a minimum of four points from the double-header. He believes his team are just as capable of gathering three of them in the Amsterdam Arena on 6 November as they are this evening.
What is certain is that Celtic can ill afford to find themselves still pointless when matchday three concludes. After the 2-0 defeat in Milan and the 1-0 home loss to Barcelona, their margin for error has diminished significantly in a tournament where seven points is the lowest total which has achieved progress to the last 16.
“We will need to pick something up away from home because we have lost a game at Celtic Park already,” said Lennon. “If we want to qualify, we need to pick something up in Amsterdam or in the last game away in Barcelona.
“This is a game we must not lose, I wouldn’t say it’s a must-win. If we could get four points from the two games with Ajax, it would give us a good chance of getting out of the group. I don’t want to look too far ahead, but if we get four out of six – which is a big ask but which is doable – we would then have a home game against Milan which I think we could win as well.”
Lennon travelled to Enschede on Saturday night to see Ajax draw 1-1 with Dutch League leaders Twente, leaving Frank de Boer’s side still without an away win this season. While respectful of Ajax’s capabilities, Lennon is quietly optimistic his team can prove to be the more adept of the two at Champions League level. “I think we might shade it in terms of experience over Ajax,” added Lennon. “Last season was different for us, it was the first time in the Champions League for many of our players, but after all the qualifiers and group games we have played since then, we have a wealth of experience.
“We’re at home and we have the advantage going into this game. I don’t think anything fazes my team. We’ve had pressure games for two or three years and they have handled them quite well. The mood in the camp was very light this morning and there was no apprehension around the place. I don’t feel any of that going into this game.
“Maybe external expectations of us have changed as a result of what we did last season, but mine haven’t. With the loss of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson this year, it was always going to be more difficult.
“We have had a short period of time to bed players in. For example, Nir Biton has been here for two months but for four weeks of that time he has been away with his international team. It’s been something similar with Teemu Pukki so it’s very difficult to get these guys into any sort of routine.
“But you are always looking to better things. For me, getting into the Champions League was massive. Then you look at the group and think it is going to be difficult to emulate last year. But the group is far from being away from us this year. These two games are going to be crucial.
“We are very wary of Ajax. They are not in the same class as Barcelona – not many teams are – but they can certainly play and they have goals in them. Every team has strengths and weaknesses and we want to exploit their weaknesses.
“They will see this as an opportunity to win the game as well. They’ll try and take the sting out of the crowd and dictate the game as much as they can. We have to try and combat that as best we can.
“We’ll have to be patient at times when they have possession, because they do keep the ball very well. They do like to slow things down, they are very good at that. They had some good passages of play on Saturday night, especially in the second-half, when they worked the ball very well, side to side and then through.
“They had chances to put the game away first-half, but then showed character away to the league leaders to look like the home team for long spells of the second half. They have great character and belief despite being young players.
“I really like the Icelandic lad Kolbeinn Sigthorsson who scored, he is a real handful. But the game is there for us. We obviously have big players missing in Scott Brown and Kris Commons, but there is nothing you can do about that.
“We also had big players missing when we beat Barcelona last season. You can’t think about that, you just have to pick a team you think will win. You have to try and find a way of breaking them down. I think the first goal will be vital.”
Lennon has fond memories of Celtic’s last Champions League engagement with Ajax, the qualifying round triumph in 2001 under Martin O’Neill which took the club into the group stage of the tournament for the first time. A stunning 3-1 first leg win in Amsterdam was followed by a tense 1-0 defeat in Glasgow.
“It was a springboard for something we had never experienced before,” recalled Lennon. “When you look back on it, we probably didn’t realise how big it was at the time.
“The second leg was very nervy. We didn’t know whether to stick or twist, being 3-1 up from the first leg. Then Ajax scored so early here. It was a question of battening down the hatches because they played very, very well.
“Going to Amsterdam and winning in the manner we did was fantastic. They had some great players. I thought the Brazilian lad Wamberto, who scored at Celtic Park, was brilliant against us in both games. I thought he’d go on to be a superstar but I don’t know where his career ended up.”
Lennon will also renew his acquaintance with Frank de Boer whose brief spell at Rangers in 2004 included two 1-0 defeats at Parkhead. “Frank was a class player, as was his brother Ronald,” said Lennon. “They really added to the SPL at the time.
“Frank knows the atmosphere at Celtic Park, having played here for Rangers in such a high profile fixture. But I think it’s even better under the floodlights, a little bit different. The Celtic-Rangers games were usually early kick-offs, you very rarely got a midweek one.
“Under the floodlights here, the intensity of the atmosphere seems to increase. We have to capitalise on that. We have to try and take the game to Ajax when we can.”