CELTIC reignited their hopes of plotting a route into the Champions League last 16 with a mature, resilient display to overcome a slick but profligate Ajax side.
Scorers: Celtic - Forrest (45pen), Kayal (54); Ajax - Schone (90+4)
Referee: I Bebek (Croatia)
James Forrest’s immaculately converted penalty at the end of a first half controlled for lenghty spells by the Dutch champions gave Neil Lennon’s men an edge which they built on nine minutes after the break when Beram Kayal scored his first goal for the club in over two years.
If victory flattered Celtic somewhat on a night when Ajax’s wastefulness in front of goal explained why they have yet to win away from home this season, their increasing experience of these occasions allowed them to secure their first three points of their Group H campaign. They survived the late dismissal of Nir Biton, the Israeli substitute foolishly earning a straight red for a wild challenge on Thulali Serero, and a retaliatory strike in the final minute of stoppage time by Lasse Schone which finally found a way beyond Fraser Forster.
The win lifts Celtic off the bottom of the group and closer to both Milan and Barcelona who drew in the San Siro last night. If they can avoid defeat in the return fixture against Ajax in Amsterdam in a fortnight, Celtic will be firmly back in the mix for a top-two finish. Lennon had urged his side to dictate the tempo of the match from the start and they duly attempted to impose themselves on their visitors by pressing as high up the pitch as possible during a reasonably encouraging first 15 minutes or so for the Scottish champions.
Aside from a mild moment of panic by Fraser Forster, who fumbled a cross from Daley Blind before booting the ball to safety, there was little in the way of an attacking threat from Ajax during that spell. Celtic passed up a premium opportunity to grab the opener in the 13th minute from a fine move in which Kayal, handed the central midfield responsibilities vacated by suspended captain Scott Brown, switched play neatly with a fine pass to Mikael Lustig on the right. The Swedish full-back, whose place in the side was only confirmed after a morning fitness test, whipped over a terrific cross behind the flat-footed Ajax defence. Unfortunately for Celtic, they could not capitalise as Teemu Pukki failed to connect cleanly with the ball from no more than eight yards out.
It soon began to look as if Celtic might regret that missed chance. Ajax gradually produced the effective possession football which Lennon had warned could make life difficult for his players. So it proved as Celtic saw their early share of the ball diminish. As the Ajax pressure built up, there were some anxious moments for the home defence. Virgil van Dijk, keen to impress against his homeland’s most celebrated club, made a crucial block to keep out a shot by Ajax’s Iceland striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson.
There was a much closer call for Celtic in the 29th minute as more slick build-up work by Ajax forced van Dijk to concede a free kick with a foul on visiting captain Siem de Jong. The set-piece was delivered with pace from the right by impressive Danish teenager Viktor Fischer, Charlie Mulgrew only able to head his attempted clearance into the path of Christian Poulsen who might have done better than strike Forster’s right-hand post from close range.
As it stood, Lennon would probably have settled for getting his players back into the dressing room at half-time with the scoreline still blank and a chance to regroup. But they delivered a real bonus for him with the dramatic opener from the penalty spot in the frantic final moments before the interval.
Celtic had managed to get themselves back on to the front foot again, Ajax goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen unconvincingly touching a Mulgrew corner over his bar just as the ball looked set to dip under it. From the next corner, Ajax were unable to clear their lines and Georgios Samaras held the ball up intelligently before feeding Anthony Stokes on the left edge of the penalty area.The Irish striker knew exactly what he was doing as he completely wrong-footed Stefano Denswil, cutely inviting the rash challenge by the Ajax central defender which sent him sprawling.
It was an easy decision for Croatian referee Ivan Bebek, who pointed straight to the spot. Ajax reacted furiously, earning bookings for Poulsen and Joel Veltman for dissent, while van Dijk also went into the book as he reacted to the visitors’ blatant efforts to delay the taking of the spot-kick for as long as possible.
But, as stewards had to move in to quell the furious response of the Ajax support, Forrest was the coollest person inside Celtic Park as he eventually stepped forward and smashed the ball high beyond the helpless Cillessen from 12 yards to give Celtic a precious advantage.
It was a lead they looked certain to surrender eight minutes into the second half when Ajax carved out a glorious opportunity to equalise. The Celtic defence was carved open by a brilliant exchange of passes between Thulani Serero and Sigthorsson, leaving the South African midfielder one-on-one with Forster. Not for the first time in a Champions League outing, Celtic were indebted to their giant goalkeeper as he advanced to make a crucial save, although Serero should have left him helpless.
It proved a hugely pivotal moment as Celtic raced up the pitch to make it 2-0 just a minute later. When a Samaras shot was blocked by Veltman, the ball broke into the path of Kayal just outside the penalty area. The Israeli midfielder looked to guide a precise side-footed shot beyond Cillessen, but a sharp deflection off the luckless Denswil wrong-footed the Ajax goalkeeper and the ball nestled in the corner of his net, sparking wild celebrations around the ground.
Ajax coach Frank de Boer must have been fast reaching the conclusion that this was a night when the breaks were simply not going to go his team’s way. They tried to rally immediately, putting Celtic under fresh pressure, but Sigthorsson wasted another excellent chance when he screwed a shot wide of Forster’s left hand post from around ten yards.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig (Biton 77), Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Kayal (Ledley 70), Mulgrew; Forrest, Pukki (Balde 90), Samaras; Stokes. Subs not used: Zaluska, Rogic, Atajic, Fisher
Ajax: Cillessen; Van Rhijn (Schone 80), Denswil, Veltman, Blind; Poulsen (Boilesen 67); Andersen, De Jong, Serero, Fischer (De Sa 72); Sigthorsson. Subs not used: Vermeer, Van Der Hoorn, Klaassen, Hoesen