CELTIC manager Neil Lennon and his players will find themselves up against “one of the best coaches in the world” when Frank de Boer brings his Ajax side to the east end of Glasgow next week, according to a player who watched first-hand as the one-time Rangers defender burnished his reputation at the Amsterdam club.
Belgian centre-back Toby Alderweireld was one of the Ajax mainstays that the Dutch club cashed in on during the summer, the 24-year-old moving to Atletico Madrid for £5.5 million in August.
Alderweireld accepts his old team have been weakened by his exit, attacker Christian Eriksen’s £12m move to Tottenham Hotspur and the £2m sale of his former room-mate Derk Boerrigter to Celtic.
But Alderweireld does not underestimate Ajax’s capacity for renewal under De Boer, right.
Following defeats by Milan and Barcelona that have left them bottom of Group H, Celtic desperately need to gain a first point of this Champions League campaign when Ajax come calling a week on Tuesday to retain any realistic hopes of qualification. A point above them, the Dutch club will see next week’s encounter as the opportunity to put daylight between themselves and Lennon’s side and enhance their prospects of at least earning third place and dropping into the Europa League.
“They have lost players this summer, including me, but they have been planning,” Alderweireld said. “Ajax are used to that because every year this happens and players leave. The team has lost experience but they can do well in Europe this season. The manager always has ideas and has confidence in youth. He’ll want them to step up and he will believe they can. That is always the way with Ajax, players leave and they are replaced by new ones coming through the youth set up.
“Frank has made Ajax champions three years in a row and he’s so smart. He sees things three steps ahead and knows everything about football. That’s why I think he’s one of the best coaches in the world. He has a very good team around him as well. Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp have done everything in football and they bring plenty to the coaching staff. The youth at Ajax learn a lot from them and that’s why they get good moves early in their careers.”
De Boer has joined the ranks of the Ajax coaching luminaries with his trio of titles. Only Rinus Michels and Louis van Gaal have achieved the treble with the Amsterdam side but neither as quickly as De Boer.
While Alderweireld has nothing but admiration for his old manager’s methods, the defender’s old pal Boerrigter might not be quite so enthused. He didn’t see eye-to-eye with De Boer in the latter part of his Ajax career. For Alderweireld, that could make the winger a man on a mission next week. However, that assumes he will be given a central role. Injuries that have thus far prevented Boerrigter making any real impression at Celtic means his participation against his old club in ten days’ time is far from certain. Alderweireld, a Belgian internationalist who played in his country’s recent win at Hampden, is convinced Boerrigter will come good and that next week’s Champions League confrontation could be the kick-start he needs.
“Derk will do very well for Celtic, he’s very fast and has a great shot with his left foot. He can come short for the ball but if it goes deep and he gets past you there’s no chance you’ll catch him. He’s so fast and has a great shot at goal so I expect him to create and score for Celtic.
“We have a good connection and I was delighted for him when he got his move. He was a good room-mate, he was very easy to get on with because he’s a good guy. Derk will be very motivated when Celtic play Ajax because he didn’t leave for Celtic with a good feeling about Ajax. He will want to prove to them that they made a wrong decision in allowing him to leave.”
Alderweireld makes no bold predictions about the match or the final placings in Group H. “It is a very difficult group for Ajax and Celtic,” he said. “Against AC Milan you will get a chance to play but they can kill you with the counter-attack. Barcelona are a top team so it is always difficult. But when Celtic and Ajax play I think it’s 50-50. They are probably playing for third place but both are capable of playing above themselves. So there is a chance they could finish in second place if everything goes well.”