SCOTLAND’S most senior football expert believes that simple pressing tactics and good opportunism from set-pieces – two of Celtic’s hallmarks in recent years – could be enough for them to complete a famous Champions League double over Ajax tonight.
Scotland’s most senior football expert is, of course, a Dutchman, so Mark Wotte’s insight into the two sides involved in the Group H cliffhanger is without compare. And the SFA’s performance director echoed the confidence of Scotland manager Gordon Strachan when asked if Celtic could repeat their Parkhead victory in the less comfortable surrounds of the Amsterdam ArenA.
Ajax are mired in a wretched run of results that put Celtic’s reliance on a late goal to draw with Dundee United into perspective. The most depressing thing about the Eredivisie champions’ 1-0 defeat at home to Vitesse Arnhem last weekend was that the more realistic fans had seen it coming.
Wotte’s advice for Celtic manager Neil Lennon is to ape the tactics that the Vitesse coach, Peter Vosz, used to undermine Frank de Boer’s passing game. Namely, defend high up the field and deny the Ajax flair players space, frustrate the hosts and wait patiently for dead-ball opportunities. Keys to the plan would appear to be defensive cohesion and courage – in the latter, certainly, the Scottish champions are unlikely to be lacking.
“Away from home it takes brave tactics to win in Amsterdam,” said Wotte. “Vitesse Arnhem was very high up the park and didn’t let them [Ajax] out their own half and were brave. Managers can be reluctant to play a high line away from home,but that’s how you beat Ajax. If Neil decides to do that, then it could be the key.
“Also, you have to create set-pieces against Ajax because I think they are vulnerable to that. Celtic has a much greater physical presence. It only takes one or two good set plays to win a game that is even.
“Celtic have a lot of qualities which are difficult for Ajax to deal with,” added Wotte, suggesting that the older and stronger of the two sides may have already created a psychological advantage to go with the physical mismatch. “They are physical, they are brave and they are on a better run than Ajax.
“But I saw the game at Parkhead, and Ajax created three or four big chances to equalise or score and they didn’t take these chances. I admired the tactics of Neil Lennon putting pressure on the Ajax build-up. They had problems getting from the defensive third to the middle third to the final third. But, when they did reach the middle third, they were a threat sometimes.
Wotte said Ajax are a team in uproar. “Johann Cruyff has come out and said they always make the same mistakes. But it’s such a young team. Only Christian Poulsen has any experience.
“Even Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen, who were sold in the summer, were only 22 and 20 – they didn’t lose a lot of experience, although they had played games for their age. I was talking to Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars before the game and they admitted they were still a young team.
“You see the central defenders [Joel] Veltman and [Stefano] Denswil. They are young, and for their age I thought they did well against Celtic, but it was not enough to beat them. This game can go both ways – if Celtic has another strong team performance with pressure on the ball, then they can beat Ajax. If Ajax gets a little more space on the ball, then they can hurt any team.”
Wotte was also asked about Virgil van Dijk’s reputation in the Netherlands and endorsed his improvement in a manner that was not intended to patronise either the Celtic defender or the Scottish Premiership, where he has impressed to the point of being considered by Louis van Gaal for an international call-up.
“In Holland central defenders are judged in another way,” said Wotte. “It’s not only clearing the ball and winning headers. For Celtic, Van Dijk is a good passing player but, in Holland, he’s not exceptional with his passing ability. I know big clubs have watched Van Dijk but they have their own players who they have developed through the youth system and did not want to pay the money.
“He’s just a rough diamond and still a young boy. He came from RKC Waalwijk to Groningen and didn’t have any international experience. He played one or two games for the under-21s, but is a great signing for Celtic. I know that Louis Van Gaal is watching him and he sent an assistant coach to watch the Celtic v Ajax game and I’m sure he made a report on van Dijk as well.
“It’s a great move to go from Groningen to Celtic and play in the Champions League. He will develop.”