AJAX, dear old Ajax, will have retreated to Amsterdam in the dead of night wondering – as so many have wondered before them – what the hell happened to them here at Celtic Park.
They will feel that 2-1 did them no justice and they might have a point. They might talk about the post they hit in the first-half and the number of chances and half chances they had in the second and, for sure, they’d be entitled to wallow. No harm in a good wallow. No points, but no harm.
This was a return to the ruthless Celtic efficiency that did for Barcelona here a year ago and with a little of the dramatic endgame. Celtic didn’t manage to finish in a canter, but neither did they see out the closing minutes defending the slenderest of leads. Ajax pulled a goal back with practically the last kick of the game and they got it when Celtic had been reduced to ten men for the second Champions League game in a row. Nir Biton was the culprit this time. Not long on the field as a second- half substitute, Biton went into a tackle with studs up and got what was coming to him.
The tackle was reckless and shocking. Rugby-esque, perhaps? Biton got little sympathy from Neil Lennon as he made his way off and, if the Celtic manager hasn’t had cause to use his own version of the hairdryer of late, then he could get back in the swing of things with his midfielder. Stupid doesn’t quite cover it, no more than joy and relief could encapsulate the mood on the final whistle. It was more profound than that. It was the sound of a tired but thrilled stadium coming to terms with a scary ride on the edge of elimination only to veer suddenly back on to the straight and narrow.
They were shorn of some of their better players through injury and suspension, but they were ‘at it’, as Lennon, might have put it. They were a mixture of fire and ice and, yes, luck. They got some breaks. Some big breaks. They had fewer attempts on goal, fewer attempts on target and less possession – 39 per cent to Ajax’s 61 per cent – but such things don’t always matter. Ajax would have returned home with something of the same bewildered look that Barca and Spartak and Karagandy and others have worn in the recent past.
This was a night of two Celtic goals and two Celtic renaissance stories. The opener was a penalty from James Forrest. There was a ludicrous period of time-wasting by Ajax just before he took his kick, a mind-game from the visitors that saw two of their players booked (and one of Celtic’s) while the Dutch goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, came wandering out of his goal like he was away to the shop to buy the milk. Forrest stood there emotionless through all of this. Forrest has been unwell lately. Celtic weren’t quite living in fear of Forrest having a “killer brain disease”, as one of the tabloids screamed in a headline the other day, but Lennon was worried for sure. His player – a player he adores – lost a lot of weight and with it went much of his old verve. His better self started to return on Saturday against Hibs and here he stood over a penalty that would complete the journey from sick bed to glory. His aim was hard and true. My how the stadium shook when it hit the net.
That was part one. Part two followed soon enough. Beram Kayal got the second with the help of a deflection from Stefano Denswil, the same player who gave away the penalty. Kayal would not have been everybody’s choice to start this match, not after being outbattled by Hibs’ midfielders on Saturday, not after a year and more of performances that have been well below his best stuff, not without the mojo that he had and then lost when suffering an awful ankle injury in December 2011. Being honest, most of the Celtic support would have wanted Joe Ledley in there instead, but Lennon stuck to his guns. He didn’t want two left-footers in the heart of his midfield – Charlie Mulgrew being the other. He didn’t want to risk Ledley from the beginning because he was undercooked after missing most of the last month. And Lennon was right. Kayal delivered. The goal was his reward, the fortuitous break that was a long time coming after all the hard knocks.
In that moment of celebration, something else could be seen down there on the pitch. Lennon celebrated the goal, of course he did. But he also turned to berate Efe Ambrose for slackness that almost allowed Ajax to score just seconds before. It was as if the Celtic manager was telling his defender, “don’t you dare celebrate, you almost cost us. Concentrate!” Impressive.
The penalty changed the narrative completely. Beforehand, there was a passage of play that was emblematic of their Champions League season, their woes in microcosm. They piled forward in numbers, they stuck crosses into the box, they tried to play over, around and through Ajax and were just not good enough to do it. In these moments perhaps the locals pined for Kris Commons, who might have had the wit to unlock the visitors’ defence or the audacity to hit one from distance, as he did when setting Celtic on their way in the second leg against Karagandy.
Celtic did not lack fight or energy. Of course they would have been better had Scott Brown been in their team, but they were surviving admirably without him. There was no shortage of grunt in their ranks. They didn’t lack leadership or drive. What was missing was invention, trickery, craft. As the half meandered to what we thought was an uneventful end, the home fans might have longed for Commons or somebody like him. They are a team with a lot going for them but they need more cleverness in attack. They don’t just need Commons, they need Commons plus one. Cleverness costs, though. Peter Lawwell will tell you that cleverness is at a premium in European football and every team in the rarefied air of the Champions League is looking for it and most, if not all, of them are able to pay more for it than Celtic. So all of those things were buzzing in the head before the penalty. The notion was taking hold that Celtic’s Champions League aspirations were going to peter out because they didn’t spend the money that needed to be spent on getting the kind of player they needed to get.
And then, lo, the penalty arrived and everything that seemed important before suddenly didn’t seem to matter anymore. Ajax had hit the post through Christian Poulsen. They had threatened to break away and score through Viktor Fischer (Kayal did brilliantly to chase and tackle and clear the danger). They had soaked up all – almost all – that Celtic had to offer in the opening half and weren’t bothered unduly by any of it. Forrest, the spark that had to ignite if Celtic were to keep their dreams alive, had run hard and run fruitlessly at Danny Blind. In 42 minutes of toil, the nearest Celtic had come to troubling Cillessen in the Ajax goal was a Mulgrew corner, which Cillessen clawed over his own crossbar. Perspiration, but no inspiration. Then Stokes drew a foul from Denswil and Kayal chanced his luck from distance and suddenly we were in a different kind of film altogether. A happy ending. And a promising new beginning in the group.