CELTIC were able to regard Saturday’s loss of two points at Easter Road with equanimity. They will have no such luxury tomorrow night when Ajax visit Parkhead in the Champions League.
The 1-1 draw with Hibernian was enough to ensure that Neil Lennon’s side would stay top of the Premiership regardless of Inverness’s result against Partick Thistle yesterday, and did not even slightly challenge the presumption that they will retain their title with relative ease this season. But, after losses to AC Milan and Barcelona, any kind of failure to beat Ajax in the third round of Group H fixtures will further damage Celtic’s hopes of reaching the last 16, while defeat will hurt their prospects of claiming third place and the consolation prize of a Europa League slot.
A draw and a win in the double-header with the Dutch club would do wonders for Celtic’s chances, especially if Barcelona beat Milan home and away.
Then the Scots and the Italians would be on four points apiece, two ahead of Ajax, throwing the race for second place wide open.
One point tomorrow then three in Amsterdam on 6 November would be an acceptable return, but make no mistake: Celtic will go out to win at home, and, no matter their injury worries, believe they have the players to get that victory.
“We aren’t even thinking about the second game,” James Forrest said after coming off the bench to score the equaliser against Hibs. “We’re just focusing on this one. We’ll give our all and then take things from there. “Is it a must-win game? You can put it that way. We need to get three points and we have the players to do that. Let’s hope we do. We played Ajax in pre-season last year and they were very good. They pass it well, they have a lot of pace and they need the points. We expect them to be attacking.”
Forrest was a first-half substitute for Kris Commons, who is almost certainly out of the Ajax game after appearing to pull a hamstring. With Scott Brown also out because of suspension, Lennon has a serious selection problem in midfield, although full-backs Emilio Izaguirre and Mikael Lustig should be available.
“These are crucial games,” Forrest continued. “There will be a great atmosphere and the boys are up for it. I’m happy to take on extra responsibility if Kris is out. But we also have guys like Sami [Georgios Samaras], [Anthony] Stokes and [Teemu] Pukki.
“I’ve played in big games before and this is another one. I’ll treat it the same and I’m looking forward to it. I love these games. It’s class. All the boys will tell you the atmosphere is frightening. We want to give something back to the fans for their support. We want to give them something to cheer about.”
Forrest’s introduction to the game came earlier than scheduled, but he is now back close to his best after an injury and a virus kept him out of action for most of last month.
“It’s great to be back and I feel much better,” he added. “It was a nightmare being ill and it took a while to get built back up. Hopefully that’s me back and I can start to get more minutes on the pitch. I was in the hospital for four or five days. They didn’t actually say what it was in the end. It was a nightmare.
“It was my head and it was terrible. I don’t really want to talk about it. I feel better now and I just want to look forward. I lost a lot of weight and I’ve been trying to build myself up for the past two weeks. That’s me put most of it back on, so I just need to play more games and get fit that way.”
Ajax will certainly present a different, more subtle kind of challenge than Hibs, whose physicality was described by Lennon as “absolutely shocking”, “reckless” and “rugby-esque”. There were only two yellow cards in the game – for Hibs’ Ryan McGivern and Liam Craig – but the Celtic manager understandably contrasted the laissez-faire approach of referee Calum Murray with Uefa’s imposition of a three-match ban on Brown for his kick at Barcelona’s Neymar.
Certainly, if Ajax tackle as robustly as Hibs did, we can expect the match officials to do more than book a couple of their players.
But, after a period in which Hibs’ back four looked like it was made up of Walter the Softy out of Dennis the Menace and three of his less macho pals, Pat Fenlon can regard Lennon’s complaint as a back-handed compliment.
Midfielder Owain Tudur Jones, whose drive was an important element in Hibs’ ability to match Celtic, suggested the Parkhead manager’s criticism was more over the top than the tackles. “If it was the other way round and Celtic were playing Barcelona and had to get in their faces and get tackles in, Lennon would be a very happy man,” the Welshman said. “So it is a little bit of kidology, really. It showed we were well up for the game.
“I don’t think there were any ridiculous tackles – big, lunging two-footed tackles – there was none of that. It was all commitment. Celtic are a top team and they have the better players, so any time they don’t get the maximum points there’s going to be something they’re not happy about.
“Sometimes the opposition players are a little quicker than you and you get there late. When the tackles are like what they are today – that desire to win the ball – then it’s not a problem.
“It’s slightly different if you’re a manager and your players are going in two-footed, really reckless tackles. You have to hold your hand up then and say maybe one or two were a bit naughty, but I think today the manager will be pleased with the desire shown.”