THE magnitude of Celtic’s Champions League assignment away to Ajax on Wednesday night doesn’t need impressed upon Efe Ambrose.
“Going to Amsterdam is huge for us,” the Nigerian says. “It’ll be a deciding game for us – every one we play from now on is crucial, a cup final, to make the last 16. We know what we’re up against and we know we have to get everything right. It’s important to believe we can do it and we’re working hard to achieve our goals. We know we can’t write Ajax off though. They played good football against us at home, but they didn’t take their chances. We took ours. They’re a good side but the most important thing is for us to keep our heads straight and stay focused because we know if we lose it’s all over. We don’t want to let that happen.”
The situation Ambrose describes was even more pronounced when Celtic met Frank de Boer’s men on their home patch a fortnight ago. The 2-1 victory achieved at Celtic Park allowed Neil Lennon’s side to move on to three points, two above the Dutch club now propping up Group H. Were Celtic to secure that rarest beast – an away win in the Champions League, which would only be their second in 23 attempts – a place in the Europa League post-Christmas would be all but theirs with two games remaining. Moreover, assuming AC Milan lose away to Barcelona in midweek, in that scenario Celtic could qualify for the last 16 were they to overcome Milan when these two meet in the east end of Glasgow in the next round of matches.
If nothing else, Celtic go to Amsterdam having ensured a momentum shift with the first victory of this campaign. That point is not lost on Ambrose either. “Last time Ajax came without pressure because we had to win at home but the pressure is all back to them now,” says the centre-back. “We’re comfortable going there now, even though it won’t be easy. But they know they can’t lose the game if they have any chance to qualify. The better team will win the game… but I believe we’re the better team.”
The 24-year-old, indeed, dares to suggest Lennon’s side are potentially improved from the team that powered Celtic into the last 16 of the competition 11 months ago. “We’re still a good team,” Ambrose says. “We lost [Gary] Hooper, [Victor] Wanyama and [Kelvin] Wilson but the ones that came in are doing good work, they’re getting there. It’s not easy but I believe we’ll become stronger than we were last season.”
In Ambrose’s own area of the team there is little disagreement that a new arrival has allowed for renewal and revitalising. The Africa Cup of Nations winner has dovetailed impressively with summer signing Virgil van Dijk. So much so that the 22-year-old Dutchman is now being touted for international recognition in his homeland. Ambrose believes the circle of footballing life is allowing his central defensive partnership to blossom.
“His communication is good, he speaks English and we get on well,” Ambrose says. “And the manager has given us confidence to go and play. I want to help him the way Kelvin helped me. Kelvin talked to me all the time, he gave me confidence and courage and everything I needed to become a better player. Coming to a new league, you need someone to help you through. You need to adapt and when Virgil came in we spoke about how he needed to play.
“It’s about communication. Sometimes when I know he’s going [forward] I have to sit back for him. We’ve been covering for each other well. It’s my game as well, though. That’s why the manager has confidence in me. He knows I like doing that but to do that you need cover behind you in case there are any slip-ups.” Ambrose’s imperfections, highlighted when Celtic lost out in the last 16 to Juventus in March, appear to have been pared down through assuming the responsibilities of senior defensive partner. It is a vein in which the player must continue in the Amsterdam Arena.