HAVING lost their spine in the transfer market in the summer, Celtic now have to face Ajax in a pivotal Champions League match without a bit of their heart.
Scott Brown’s petulant kick might have been directed at Neymar, but the ones who felt the pain weren’t those in scarlet and blue but green and white. And so, having sold one midfield buffer in the colossal Victor Wanyama, the other has been lost to suspension. Neil Lennon has got some pretty major planning to do ahead of Tuesday night.
“We can’t lose it, put it that way,” said the Celtic manager on whether this match was a must-win or not. “We are four points worse off in the group than we were at this stage last season. We have a bit of work to do. Home form is important to us, but Ajax are a very good side. Let’s not beat about the bush. They will give us plenty to think about, plenty of problems. But we are at home and I think we will be confident enough to take the game to them.”
Celtic are almost a mirror image of their previous self. Last season they survived on scraps in most of their Champions League games, living off small amounts of possession and few attempts on goal. The double-header against Barcelona was a perfect example of their extraordinary efficiency. In two matches they had six attempts on target and scored three times. In their first two games of the current campaign – against AC Milan at the San Siro and Barcelona in Glasgow – they had eight attempts on target and yet haven’t scored a single goal.
They have looked comfortable for large parts of both of these games, but serenity can quickly turn to despair in the cut-throat world of the Champions League. In many ways, Celtic have cut their own throats. Slack defending in Milan and that daft kick by Brown at Parkhead. Lennon must feel that his team have gone close and yet they are so very far away.
“There is a frustration that we haven’t taken anything from our two games. But that is significant in itself, given that we played Milan away and Barcelona at home. When you are disappointed after that, you obviously have a good team. And we think we have a good team. As I said when the draw was made, we are not the runts of litter. We have been pretty competitive. Did we deserve better? Probably. Did we get it? No. There is a lot of emphasis on this game and if we can win it, brilliant. If we get a point, it means we have to go to Amsterdam and win. I think we are capable of doing that.”
Lennon and Frank de Boer could keep up each other up half the night talking about the ways in which their teams have changed over the last while. Lennon has lost Kelvin Wilson, Wanyama and Hooper. His captain will be a tortured soul in the stand. He’s also going to be missing Adam Matthews, Derk Boerritger and, probably, Joe Ledley, who’s been out for over a month.
The Dutchman, and his predecessors in recent years, could counter that. Celtic, for instance, pinched Boerrigter from him. In the summer, Tottenham nabbed Christian Eriksen and Atletico Madrid took his top centre-half, Toby Alderweireld. This is Ajax’s fate. They nurture players brilliantly and they move them on. It’s the model Celtic have adopted. A fiscal success but also a painful reminder of what might have been. Look at the cast of characters they have lost since selling Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Juventus for £14 million nine years ago. Jan Vertonghen to Tottenham, Gregory van der Wiel to PSG, Maarten Stekelenburg to Roma, Demy de Zeeuw to Spartak Moscow, Luis Suarez to Liverpool, Thomas Vermaelen to Arsenal, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to Real Madrid, Wesley Sneijder to Real Madrid, Rafael van der Vaart to Hamburg.
Ajax constantly reinvent themselves. That is their beauty. Yes, they have only one point from their two matches in the group, but it could so easily have been more had AC Milan not got the benefit of an iffy last-minute penalty in round two, a spot-kick that cost Ajax victory. Even in their opening match, a 4-0 defeat at Barcelona, they were dangerous. They had six attempts on target, including a penalty, which they managed to miss. Victor Valdes was outstanding on the night. Lionel Messi’s hat-trick made it look like a rout but it was a lot more nuanced than the scoreline suggests.
“Siem de Jong is a threat from midfield,” said Lennon. “Viktor Fischer, a young winger they got from Alkmaar, is very dynamic and comes in on his right foot. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is a striker but he played wide when I saw them against PSV. [Ajax lost 4-0]. They are a typical Ajax team, they move it quickly and have good pace in wide areas. They’re definitely a threat going forward.
“They’ve had to rear their own and it’s one of the great academies. Probably them and Barcelona are the two best in Europe. How they keep doing it, I don’t know. It’s something they’ve worked on for a long time to perfect. What they do as well, they’ve got Frank as coach and Ronald [de Boer] is there with development players, Dennis Bergkamp is there, Marc Overmars is director of football. Edwin van der Saar is also there. So they get all the players back and keep that tradition running through the club, which is very impressive.”
For Lennon, the great puzzler is who he puts into Brown’s position. Ledley, he reckons, would be a big ask given that he’s not played since mid-September. In any event, he’s got one left-footer in that role already in Charlie Mulgrew. He doesn’t want two lefties in there. There’s also Nir Biton, who was away on international duty last week but didn’t get to play. Biton is still finding his feet, though. The only match he has started for Celtic was the League Cup loss to Morton. That leaves Beram Kayal, something of a forgotten man at Parkhead these days. The Israeli really hasn’t been himself since missing the second half of the 2011-12 season following an ankle injury against Rangers. He’s had a few set-backs along the way since, some niggles but, most notably, the excellence of others in his position.
“Beram is fully fit now,” said his manager. “He didn’t go away with Israel and he’s trained hard for ten days.
“It was difficult for him last season. You had Brown, Wanyama, Mulgrew and Ledley ahead of him – four quality players. It was frustrating and I don’t think he’s hit the heights since his injury. He knows that himself. But there were shoots of his form coming back in pre-season and he just needs a run of games. It’s up to him now to push himself to the forefront. He was fantastic when we signed him. We just haven’t seen the same dynamism from him.
You never lose it, but the ankle injury curtailed him. He’s had a year to get himself right and he’s looking more like himself now.”
Celtic have played admirably in the group, but Tuesday has to bring a change in the narrative of their Champions League season. Two games and no points. They have now reached the stage where another slip could be fatal.