Rodgers was on the receiving end of the club’s three record defeats in Europe during his time at Parkhead and, following a 5-0 thrashing there by Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, he claimed that the Champions League was now a two-tier competition, with Scotland’s champions very much at the back of the bus.
That rationalisation would not, of course, explain how Gordon Strachan (twice) and Neil Lennon contrived to lead Celtic into the last 16 of the premier tournament and it would also fail to encompass Ajax’s thrilling 4-1 victory over Real Madrid in the Bernabeu on Tuesday, a result which took the unfancied visitors into the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Celtic defender Kristoffer Ajer not only admired the achievement but, having noted the similarities between his own employers and the Dutch giants – the biggest clubs in their respective countries who must both unearth and then sell young talent in order to remain relevant in the European theatre – he claims that Celtic can match the feats of Erik ten Hag’s relatively inexperienced side.
“To have so many young players producing such a fine performance against a team that’s won the Champions League for the last three years was really impressive,” said the Norway centre-back.
“It shows that, if you have a really good structure for a number of years then you can deliver good results. We can use that to inspire us because we have a really good pathway for our academy players at this club.”
While Ajer agrees that Celtic will never be in a position to outspend the continent’s aristocrats he argues that they should still – at least occasionally – be able to outplay them, as Ajax did against Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema.
“You have to respect that some clubs can afford to buy the top, top players but also if you build up the way Celtic have been doing – and the way Ajax have done – it’s possible to create a system where you’re not only selling great players but also bringing really good players through that you can keep. It was impressive to watch,” he said.
“You’ll have seen recently some of the excellent players who’ve come through our youth system to play in the first team. They’re playing and training at a high level, they’re at a club where young players will be brought through and they’ve been given that opportunity.”
Ajer is currently learning to adapt to the demands of interim manager Neil Lennon and is enjoying the experience.
“Of course, I’d watched a lot of Celtic clips before I came here and I saw how he played and what he was like as a manager. I’m really looking forward to working with him and learning from him.
“The gaffer has kept things quite similar to what we’ve been used to. A few changes have been made but nothing drastic – just things like how he wants us to build up.
“Broony [Scott Brown]’s also’s been helping the whole squad over the past week. You’ve seen the way he is in games and the goals he’s scored; he’s been a leader throughout the whole thing.”
l Kristoffer Ajer was speaking as Celtic, in association with the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE), announced its support for a European-wide week of action which celebrates the wider inclusion of disabled people and the important role they can play in both football and wider society.