Ajax v Celtic: past meetings from the Archive

Bobby Petta, in action for Celtic, tussles with Ajax player Hatem Trabelsi during the teams' 2001 clash in Amsterdam. Picture: AP
Bobby Petta, in action for Celtic, tussles with Ajax player Hatem Trabelsi during the teams' 2001 clash in Amsterdam. Picture: AP
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WHEN Celtic line up against Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena this evening they will be continuing a long European rivalry between the two clubs. Amsterdam has been a happy hunting ground for Celtic twice before, although their first trip under the great Jock Stein was a humbling experience at the hands of a Johan Cruyff inspired side destined for glory.

Having featured the two teams previous clashes in Glasgow prior to Celtic’s 2-1 win over Ajax in the Champions League a fortnight ago, we turn our attention to Amsterdam. In an online exclusive, we revisit the three Amsterdam match reports from The Scotsman - from John Rafferty in 1971, from Mike Aitken in 1982 and starting with the most recent European clash in Amsterdam - Glenn Gibbons reporting from the Champions League qualifying clash in 2001.

‘Celtic flower in Amsterdam’

The Scotsman, 9 August 2001

Ajax 1, Celtic 3

By Glenn Gibbons

SHORT of talking Ajax out of bothering to travel to Glasgow for the return on Wednesday week, Celtic could hardly do more to make virtually certain of their qualification for the Champions League proper than to inflict a thoroughly dejecting defeat on the celebrated Dutch side on their own territory.

In a match in which all the preconceptions about both teams - the Scottish champions’ verve and physical and mental fortitude, the relative inexperience and naivete of Ajax - proved to be sound judgments, Celtic translated a comprehensive superiority into their best result in Europe for 19 years.

That previous landmark was also marked by victory over Ajax, by 2-1, in the old European Cup. This latest conquest will surely be much more rewarding, the new format in Europe’s premier tournament ensuring that the club will probably draw around £10 million from the six matches in the group phase.

What they will also acquire from last night’s endeavours is another layer of self-belief, in readiness for more searching tests in the weeks ahead.

If this sounds presumptuous, it is because it is impossible to envisage Ajax rescuing at Parkhead a tie which began to slip away on first-half goals from Bobby Petta and Didier Agathe and was completed by Chris Sutton’s powerful header after the interval.

Indeed, with a little luck, Henrik Larsson might have added to the tally, bulleting a header from a Petta corner off the underside of the bar which bounced off the goal line.


That incident, and the goals themselves, testified to the enormous difficulties the home defenders experienced in trying to cope with Celtic’s power in forward areas.

Far from two wing-backs and two strikers, Agathe, Sutton, Larsson and Petta more often appeared to be a four-man attack during that profitable period when they persistently put the frighteners on opponents who must have wondered at times if they were, as the draw dictated, playing at home.

In old-time Dutch fashion, Ajax had tried to subdue O’Neill’s side with aggressiveness early on but they had managed only a header from Shota Arveladze, always going well wide, before Petta did his Judas number on his compatriots.

Paul Lambert and Neil Lennon once again combined to move down the right, the latter playing the ball forward to Sutton, whose left-foot cross seemed too close to Fred Grim.

It proved to be, however, the kind of teaser which forced the goalkeeper to dive and stretch, managing merely to push the ball out to the Celtic left.

There, Petta picked it up and, with obvious deliberateness and admirable composure in what could have been unnerving circumstances, the Dutchmen chipped his shot into the net from ten yards’ range.

The second goal was the result of quick thinking, quick legs and quick feet. A throw to Larsson on the left allowed the striker to gather the ball and push past two opponents and start moving across the field.

A rolled pass to Agathe on the right and the big winger simply bolted past Chivu before steering the ball with his right foot low into the far corner from 15 yards.


Much of Celtic’s comfort, before the lapse in concentration which gave Ajax the opportunity to halve the deficit before the interval, stemmed from the exceptional work of Lennon, Lambert and Jackie McNamara in midfield, these three not only pushing their forwards, but providing their defenders with the kind of cover for which any insurance company would charge a fortune in premiums.

They were rather let down by Robert Douglas in goal, it must be said, when Ajax scored.

Nikos Machlas did well to wriggle into space ten yards from goal, but his low left-foot shot was weakly struck and seemed not to be a problem for Douglas.

But, having flopped to his right, the goalkeeper pushed the ball back into play, rather than wide, and Arveladze had only to left-foot it over the line from four yards.

Strange to say in a match which might have been an ordeal, Celtic would feel they should have been further ahead, especially when Sutton came in on Larsson’s terrific centre from the left and volleyed on target from six yards, the ball coming off Grim, whose block was more by chance than design.

And Larsson himself might have restored the two-goal advantage early in the second half when he chased a Sutton header almost to the dead ball line on the right, pulled the shot across Grim and a couple of inches wide of the far post.

But the introduction of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the towering teenage forward, in place of Pius Ikedia at the start of the second half certainly brought a sharper edge to the home attack.

The 19-year-old Swede looked lively and accurate, his driven cross-cum-shot from the left forcing Douglas to make an important save at his feet.

Douglas had looked more assured with another similar save from Van der Vaart and a dive left to deflect a shot from Machlas before Sutton scored Celtic’s third.

The big striker began moving forward the moment Agathe gathered the ball on the right and was on the six-yard line when he fell forward to send a ferocious header off the impeccable cross past Grim, by then doubtless feeling what his name suggests.

Those other victims of Celtic’s exuberant performance, his team-mates, would be sharing the sensation.

Ajax: Grim; Trabelsi, Pasanen, Yakubu, Chivu; Ikedia, Cruz, Van der Vaart, Mido; Arveladze, Machlas. Substitutes - Lobont, Vierklau, Bergdolmo, Van der Meyde, Ibrahimovic, Knopper, Maxwell.

Celtic: Douglas; Valgaeren, Mjallby, Boyd; Agathe, McNamara, Lambert, Lennon, Petta; Larsson, Sutton. Substitutes - Kharine, Sylla, Hartson, Tebily, Moravcik, Guppy, Crainey.

‘Celtic stun Ajax with last-minute winner in Amsterdam’

Ajax 1, Celtic 2 (agg 3-4)

The Scotsman, 30 September 1982

By Mike Aitken

CELTIC won one of their most famous victories on the Continent here in Amsterdam tonight when they eliminated Johann Cruyff and the Dutch champions Ajax from the European Cup.

Inspired goals by Charlie Nicholas and substitute George McCluskey put Celtic into the second round of the competition in which they were thought to have little chance after drawing the first leg 2-2 in Glasgow.

However in a night of considerable passion and much good football played before 62,000 in a shell-shocked Olympic stadium, Celtic’s young side gave the showing of their lives. They effectively subdued the threat of Olsen, Kieft, Lerby thereby allowing themselves a foothold on a match which produced a pay-off just 60 seconds from time.

Billy McNeill’s tactics were exemplary. He used McGrain to douse Olsen – at one point the captain was booked for a series of fouls on the Dane – and Sinclair made the best of a thankless task in trying to keep Cruyff quiet. Perhaps he didn’t succeed entirely, but there is no doubt Ajax found Celtic a much tougher proposition in Amsterdam than they had done in Glasgow.

Tactical switches

The game turned in the closing 15 minutes when McNeill gambled on a series of tactical switches in search of the winner. Charlie Nicholas had given Celtic a first-half lead and Gerald Vanenburg had equalised for Ajax midway through the second half – and as things stood at 1-1 Ajax were through.

But Celtic had other ideas about how the tie could go and they put on George McCluskey for Davie Provan in the 72nd minute and six minutes later Moyes replaced McStay, thus allowing Roy Aitken to move forward into a midfield position.

The Scottish champions came within an inch of grabbing the winner in the 83rd minute when Sinclair’s run and cross encouraged McGarvey to contribute a header that beat Schrijvers but hit the woodwork, much to Celtic’s frustration.

Celtic might have been tempted to throw in the towel at that point. But they kept plugging away and they fashioned a goal fit to win any game just 60 seconds from time.

A constructive move was built along the edge of the box before Nicholas put McCluskey racing in on the far left. The substitute kept his cool admirably, weighed up the angle and scored the decisive goal of the tie with a measured left-foot shot that swept into the net at the goalkeeper’s far post.

The full house in the Olympic stadium could not believe it. Only the 3,000 or so Celtic supporters in the ground could be heard in full cry as the Celtic bench celebrated an astonishing win on the final whistle.

Marvellous start

If things finished marvellously for Celtic, they hadn’t begun badly either. As early as the third minute Nicholas had troubled the Dutch cover by creeping in on the blind side of defenders. He was unfortunate not to score early on when Molby misread a situation in the box and Schrijvers had to make a brave diving save.

The influence of Roy Aitken early on at the back was considerable. With McAdam playing well and McGrain getting to grips with Olsen, Celtic were able to play much more controlled football than had been seen in Glasgow.

They deservedly took the lead in the 33rd minute with a goal every bit as inspired as anything Ajax had managed a fortnight ago. The move was begun by McStay with a breathtaking pass from deep in his own half to Sinclair running free on the left.

He lost the ball but Nicholas latched on to it, played a clever one-two with McStay, who had made a tremendous amount of ground, and then finished the whole thing off with the crispest and neatest of finishes.

That was an important breakthrough for Celtic and they kept things tight in the back to go in at half-time a goal up and deservedly so.

Still, it only took one goal to put Celtic out at this point and as Ajax raised the pace of their game they came desperately close to scoring on numerous occasions in the second half.

However, goalkeeper Pat Bonner, who was terrific throughout, made at least two extraordinary saves early on in the second period. First of all he turned a Cruyff free kick round the post and secondly he made an awesome leap to push away a Kieft header.

Even at that Ajax’s pressure was unrelenting. They had the goal they wanted when Vanenburg was allowed too much latitude in the box and he took full advantage by striking a clever shot with the outside of his boot that gave Bonner no chance.

And so the game moved into that climactic final spell when the normal pattern of a European away leg was turned on its head. Celtic, with McCluskey on for Provan and Aitken driving from midfield, worked their way towards that splendid 89th-minute winner.

It was the stuff of happy dreams and 30 minutes after the final whistle Billy McNeill had to accompany his players to salute the thousands of Celtic supporters in the stadium to hail their heroes. For them, and Celtic, it was an unforgettable night.

Ajax: Schrivers, Van Veen, Ophot, Boevo, Molby, Cruyff, Lerby, Vannenburg, Schoemaker, Kieft, Olsen.

Celtic: Bonner, McGrain, Aitken, McAdam, Reid, Provan, Sinclair, McStay, MacLeod, Nicholas, McGarvey. Subs: Latchford, McCluskey, Crainie, Sullivan, Moyes.

Referee: Luigi Agnolin (Italy).

Attendance: 52,326

‘Celtic survival policy a miserable failure’

Ajax 3, Celtic 0

The Scotsman, 11 March 1971

by John Rafferty

AN UNTYPICAL policy of almost total commitment to defence, reminiscent of the one in Prague in the year they won the European Cup, came unstuck for Celtic in the Olympic Stadium here tonight.

Before a delirious capacity crowd of noisy, cheering Dutchmen, the champions of the country, Ajax, were left with a comfortable three-goal lead and strong favourites to advance to the semi-finals of the tournament. It will be little consolation for Celtic to remember that once in the past they themselves have lost a three-goal lead in European football.

Jock Stein had hoped that Celtic would get a lift from the occasion nut no inspiration showed. They crushed back into defence with at times only Wallace up. Flair was sacrificed for method. The priority was survival and that thought did nothing for Celtic.

This system served Celtic well in Prague, but the opponents there, Dukla, had dull forwards. This Ajax were different. They were strong in attack, and in chance-taking, and they had one of the greatest forwards in the world in Johan Cruyff. And there were others not far behind him. It proved dangerous to surrender so much ground to them; but for an hour, it seemed that the policy was going to pay off.

The defence did play magnificently and in good order, and in that hour, conceded few chances and maybe not one full one. Given adequate support from the attackers, they might have survived. McNeill was superb and unbeatable in the air, and although Hay did struggle, as anyone must do against Cruyff, little fault could be found in the rear four.

Celtic’s troubles originated forward. The men who were expected to hold the ball and relieve the defence never got going. Much was expected of Johnstone, but he was trailed by a sturdy tackler, Krol, and seldom could shake clear of him. Wallace, too, was closely marked and subdued. Lennox had more freedom, but never forced himself into the game.

Heavy burden

Callaghan did flash through to the midfield at times, but Connelly had little authority and missed a chance in the first half that would have taken Celtic off the hook.

Credit had to be given to a Dutch side who were at least the equal in organisation and ball play of Feyenoord, conquerors of Celtic in the final last year, but I would rate Ajax ahead of them in speed and variety of attack. Feyenoord had no-one to match the incomparable Cruyff.

Celtic have a heavy burden to carry to the second leg in those three goals. A couple of years ago they would have been fancied to overcome them but attackwise they will have to play immeasurably better than they did last night if they are to go to the European Cup semi-final.

The problem for them a week on Wednesday is that this Ajax are a superb attacking side and if Celtic were to go flat out for goals then they could lost more.

Jock Stein commented: “I am bitterly disappointed, after such a good first half.” He would not talk about the prospects in the second leg.

The Ajax coach, Rinus Michels, when asked if three goals would be enough, said: “Ask me round about ten o’clock two weeks tonight.” He added: “I did not expect Celtic to be defensively minded but again did they choose to defend or were they made to do so?

It was a fidgety start with Ajax trying to stampede the rearranged Celtic defence. The crowd were expectant at the start of the second half and they did get something to shout about. They wanted a penalty kick and, indeed, they had a case. Cruyff played brilliantly to leave Hay and race for goal. Williams came out and he and Hay crashed with the Dutchman at the six-yard line and he went down. Many irate Ajax players surrounded the diminutive Spanish referee but he pushed away their claims.

Then in the 62nd minute, the game at last came alive with a magnificent goal by the only man capable of scoring, Cruyff. Neeskens found him with a neat pass and the Dutchman turned elegantly and struck the ball fast. It was past Williams and in the net before the Celtic goalkeeper could move.


Fireworks exploded round the terracing and landed dangerously on the field until there was an announcement over the crowd address system that if there were any more fireworks on the field the referee would abandon the game.

The fireworks did stop, but they were replaced by a rocket which was less to Celtic’s liking. In the 70th minute Ajax were given a free kick just outside the penalty area. There was some doubt about it. Still there was little cause for concern as the defensive wall was set but Hulshoff drove a hard low shot which streaked through a gap and found Williams unsighted, although if he had seen it, it is doubtful if he could have got to it.

As Celtic pressed for the goal they needed so badly, Ajax came back again. Neeskens slipped through on the right in the last minute and gave Williams no chance with a magnificent shot.

Ajax: Stuy, Sourbier, Hulshoff, Vasovic, Krol, Rijnders, Muehren, Neeskens, Swart, Cruff, Keizer.

Celtic: Williams, Hay, Connelly, McNeill, Gemmell, Craig, Callaghan, Brogan, Lennox, Johnstone, Wallace.