THERE was a time when Celtic and Ajax craved to be regular combatants in the so-called Atlantic League. Now, it feels as if their brands are but drops in the ocean across the expanse of continental competition.
To be facing off in the Europa League that neither of them wanted to be in, a mere two years after they went toe-to-toe in the Champions League group stages, is indicative of how institution clubs outside the bigger leagues are finding cross-border pickings ever slimmer.
It’s tougher to be on the same level as clubs who have more moneyRonny Deila
Yet, what could be most troubling to the bean counters at both clubs is that the Group A opener between the two sides in Amsterdam on Thursday won’t feature the favourites for the section. That honour belongs to Fenerbahce, purely and simply because, unlike at Celtic and Ajax, in Turkey they do not seek to navigate sustainable waters and instead spend like drunken sailors.
The Istanbul club’s largesse has prompted the Dutch club’s manager, Frank de Boer, to concede that it will be Fenerbahce plus one from either Ajax or Celtic when it comes to the two qualifiers from Group A. His Glasgow counterpart, Ronny Deila, finds it difficult to disagree, much as he possesses the healthy Scandic disregard for wealth accumulation.
“That’s a good assessment, but money is not everything and we can beat Fenerbahce,” said the Norwegian of a Turkish side that will feature Robin van Persie and Nani among the many players with fat pay packets. “They have to put this team together as well and we are going to give them a fight, that’s what we want. But, of course, if you look at it that way they have brought in top-class players and are a strong team.
“There is now such a big difference in the money between different countries. It makes it harder for everybody. When we have good generations we have brought in players and given them the experience. When we have good generations we can beat anybody. But then you lose players and have to start all over again so it’s tougher to be every year on the same level like the clubs who have more money. If the distance gets too big it’s not positive for European football either.”
Celtic are Ajax-alikes in their commitment to rearing/recruiting players, developing them across a couple of seasons and then selling them for considerable profits. As demonstrated by Celtic cashing in on Virgil van Dijk for £13 million last week with the defender aged 24, it is rare for a major talent to spend their peak years with either of the two clubs owing to the skewing of finances across Europe. Yet, the Amsterdam club retain a core of exciting attacking prospects in their ranks with such as Davy Klaasen, Arkadiusz Milik, Anwar El Ghazi. Klaassen, at 22, is the eldest of the trio and the longest schooled in the Ajax system.
“They are a very young team,” Deila said. “They have a very clear style of play. With Ajax, you look at the individuals rather than the style of play because you know what you are going to meet. It’s a team that want to keep the ball and move it from side to side and play offensive football, so we have to defend well but we know we are going to get our chances as well. We’ll do everything to hurt them when we have the chance.
“They have the same demands as here in Celtic. They want to win games and get back on track and show they are good enough to be in Europe and maybe in the Champions League as well. It’s going to be a very tough game but I am confident we can get something from Amsterdam. We have an injury-free squad now, everybody has played a lot in the international break, almost everybody. They are important in their national teams and that’s a positive sign.”
It is a shame the Europa League is so derided in comparison to the Champions League, because for such as Celtic, Ajax and even their group opponents Molde, it offers the promise of close competitive encounters and intrigue to match that such teams are not really equipped to provide regularly in a set-up where clubs with £150m football wage bills ultimately reach the latter stages.
The myriad failings of Deila’s side in Malmö at the play-off stage of the Champions League suggest they could endure a difficult evening in the Dutch capital. Yet, the Celtic manager believes such assessment overlooks previous experiences on the road in continental competition across the past year.
“The Malmö game was a special game compared to the game against Qarabag. I didn’t recognise ourselves. For me it is to get back to the Qarabag level and defend very well. It has to start with that – aggression and positivity in defence. When we have chances we have to keep the ball but also attack them hard when we have possibilities. In a way you have to be more cautious and take your chances when you get them.
“In Malmö we were between everything. We were not really offensive or not good defensively. It was a lesson that we have to learn from, but I can’t say that’s how we’ve been in the other away games. We were good away against Inter Milan [in the last 32 of the Europa League last year] and I want to see a Celtic team that is more like that than the one in Malmö. That was not the level we want to be at.” The Europa League may not be the level Celtic want to be at. Yet it is a level at which they must demonstrate they can prosper.