For Georgios Samaras, the slow retreat from Amsterdam was done at a snail’s pace, the striker and captain for the night against Ajax dragging himself through Schiphol airport in the early minutes of Thursday morning like a man who had lead weights attached to his trainers.
The Greek looked deep in thought as he got detached from the rest of his team-mates. He ambled at a funereal pace towards the departure gate as if in a daze – or a sulk – and was last or, next to last, on to the plane for the return to Glasgow.
Samaras hadn’t looked much brighter in the 90 minutes in the Arena, it has to be said. When criticising the failure of his big players on the night, Neil Lennon would have had his captain at the top, or close to the top, of his list. “They didn’t perform,” said the Celtic manager. “I’m not going to dig out individuals, but you can see that for yourselves. You know who I’m talking about. It’s very frustrating because it was almost like a cup final. It was such a crucial game for us. We can’t just keep relying on our home form. We have to try and get something away from home at times. I thought it was a great opportunity for us. I thought I went strong with the team, but it wasn’t the performance I was looking for.”
Celtic can still turn this around by winning against AC Milan later in the month. That’s the good news and Celtic fans will cling to it for dear life. They will have to beat the Italians and, probably, get something in Barcelona if they are to make the last 16, but at least the prospect exists, even if it is limited. The Europa League is also there to play for. With a home match to come against Milan, the downer of the non-performance against Ajax can be corrected. It doesn’t need to be fatal, but it’s hurt them immensely, no question. Stunned them, even.
Lennon said he was shocked by Celtic’s awful wastefulness in possession and was angered by their lack of hunger in that opening half, a quality that Ajax had in abundance for the whole evening. In this regard – and others – the chickens came home to roost for Celtic. Lennon bemoaned the absence of spirit, which probably wouldn’t have been a problem had Scott Brown not been suspended because of his own daft indiscipline. That was a self-inflicted act that boomeranged back and hit Lennon’s team between the eyes. But, of course, there was another.
It wasn’t just a shortage of desire that ailed them, it was a lack of quality and good decision-making and ruthlessness in front of goal. Here, again, Celtic paid a price. Having sold Gary Hooper and bought badly in an attempt to replace him, they are now left with Anthony Stokes up front and Stokes, for all his willingness, is no more Champions League class this season than he was last season or any season before that. On the bench, Lennon had Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde, both of whom are struggling to make an impact in the Scottish Premiership, never mind Europe’s pre- eminent club competition.
Celtic have done superbly well to get this far, but they are at a crossroads now in terms of their progression. If we are looking at them in a Champions League context, they are lightweight. If their go-to players don’t perform – as was the case on Wednesday – then they don’t have many places to go in search of inspiration. Joe Ledley came off the bench and you’d normally hang your hat on the Welshman to deliver the right stuff. But the other options? Derk Boerrigter has delivered nothing so far. Balde is nowhere close to being ready for this level. Tom Rogic is a bit-part player. Pukki has been a big disappointment so far. And Darnell Fisher is a young kid only just making his way.
“It’s just that lack of quality – is that the right word?” said Lennon. Yes, it’s definitely the right word. “That’s not progression when you play like that first half because I know that they’re capable of better. You can’t be three or four players down at this level. Ajax are a quality side at the end of the day, but I felt we didn’t do ourselves justice. I’m angry, disappointed, frustrated.”
Celtic have been given well-earned praise for their scouting successes in the last few years, but not everything they have touched has turned to gold. Up front, they’ve had multiple attempts to try to find another Hooper and they haven’t done it yet, probably because finding somebody like Hooper for the kind of money and wages Celtic are prepared to spend is a long-shot. They have tried to plunder another gem from the similar price market but they’ve ended up with Lassad, Miku, Pukki, Balde. You could throw Mo Bangura into the mix as well.
What Lennon would give to have all the money he spent – and is continuing to spend – on fees and wages on most of those guys and lump it all on the capture of a single proven class act. You sense that Lennon has much talking to do with Peter Lawwell come January, if it’s not too late by then for this season.
All is not lost, but Lennon was right when he said that Wednesday’s failure has left them with a “mountain to climb”.
“Things will pick up again. You’re hoping. Mind you, if Barcelona have already qualified, you don’t know what sort of team they’ll put out [against Ajax in Amsterdam next time out]. But we can’t think about that. We’ve got to try to take Milan. I’m sure we’ll play better and then things might look a bit more optimistic after that. But then you’ve got to go to the Nou Camp and try to dig something out there. It’s very exciting, but I feel a bit flat at the minute.
“I told them to go out and play freely, but they didn’t. They were careless, nervous even at times. Particularly going forward, we gave the ball away far too much. Far too much. And we didn’t compete. We weren’t aggressive enough.”
Brown would have helped, but we know what happened there. Hooper would have helped, too. The galling thing for Lennon is that his players are still creating chances, but they are not converting. They have some fine talent and will win Premiership titles until the cows come home, but the simple fact is that when it comes to cold-blooded execution of goal-scoring opportunities in pressure-filled European matches some of them are not just not good enough for this exalted level. If they want to continue to give themselves a chance among the elite then some attacking wit and creativity and ruthlessness is required – and it’s a hell of a job finding it in what passes for European football’s bargain bucket.