IN a Europa League group which already promises to be anything but predictable, Celtic were denied a perfect start to their campaign by the reckless indiscipline of Emilio Izaguirre.
Ronny Deila’s side were on course for the ideal tonic to their recent woes as they led 2-1 with a degree of comfort in the Amsterdam Arena against an unremarkable Ajax side.
But left-back Izaguirre’s sending-off for a rash second bookable offence in the 73rd minute left the Scottish champions fighting a short-handed rearguard action in the closing stages which saw Lasse Schone plunder Ajax’s second equaliser of the night.
The point earned by first-half goals from Nir Bitton and Mikael Lustig, either side of Viktor Fischer’s strike for Frank de Boer’s men, remains a more than acceptable outcome from matchday one in Group A which also saw much-fancied Fenerbahce suffer a shock 3-1 home defeat against bottom seeds Molde.
It has given Celtic a firm foundation upon which to build before Fenerbahce visit Glasgow in a fortnight.
Kris Commons has been a peripheral figure in Deila’s squad so far this season but it did not take the gifted playmaker long to emphasise the difference he is still capable of making to Celtic’s creativity in the attacking third of the pitch.
Making his first European starting appearance of the campaign, Commons had a key role in the eighth-minute goal which provided his team with such an encouraging start to the contest.
Stefan Johansen sparked the move for Celtic as he tenaciously dispossessed Ajax midfielder Daley Sinkgraven and fed a pass to Commons around 25 yards out. With a neat turn and sidestep, Commons wrong-footed the home defence before slipping the ball to Bitton on the right side of the penalty area.
The Israeli international struck it first time with his right foot, guiding it firmly across Ajax keeper Jasper Cillessen and into the far corner of the net.
The goal came as a jolt to Ajax who had made a generally tentative start. They were facing a new-look Celtic back four, with Jozo Simunovic making his debut in the centre, and their response to going behind provided an uncomfortable moment for the big Croatian.
Fischer surged to the edge of the Celtic penalty area and Simunovic’s attempt to cut out the danger saw him come perilously close to scoring an own goal as he directed the ball narrowly wide of Craig Gordon’s right-hand post.
Ajax began to stretch the play more with Amin Younes on the left and Anwar El Ghazi on the right both causing problems for the visitors.
El Ghazi beat Izaguirre all too easily to burst into the penalty area in the 16th minute but his shot was smothered by the Celtic defence. They had no answer, however, to the goal which drew Ajax level nine minutes later.
It was a fluid and clever move from the Dutch league leaders, Younes gliding infield from the left and playing the ball to Davy Klaassen on the edge of the penalty area. The Ajax captain’s first-time flick helped it into the path of Fischer who engineered space for a right-foot shot which beat Gordon low to his left.
Ajax appeared to have seized the initiative at that stage but Celtic showed good composure and patience to take the sting out of the home side again. Their reward was to regain the lead before half-time.
They should have done so in the 40th minute, Leigh Griffiths scuffing a close-range shot which Cillessen was able to turn behind for a corner after James Forrest had set up the chance.
The Ajax No 1 was beaten two minutes later, however, with Commons again the architect. He earned a corner off Mitchell Dijks as the pair contested a cross from Griffiths and trotted across to take it himself from the left.
The delivery was perfect, a flat trajectory unsettling the Ajax defence and allowing Lustig to score with a firm downward header from inside the six-yard box at the far post.
Neither side looked comfortable in defending set-pieces and Joel Veltman wasted a chance to punish Celtic’s hesitancy at a Nemanja Gudelj corner when he sent a free header off target four minutes into the second half.
With the home support growing increasingly anxious and irritable, Ajax lacked conviction in their effort to find a second equaliser.
That was typified when Klaassen’s nervous touch on the edge of the penalty area denied him the opportunity to convert a clever Fischer pass.
Celtic looked just as likely to increase their lead and another pair of Commons corners provoked further panic in the Ajax defence, first when Forrest had two shots blocked after a weak attempted clearance by Cillessen broke to him, then when Lustig guided another free header narrowly wide.
The signs looked good for Celtic but they suddenly found themselves facing a more complicated challenge when Izaguirre foolishly earned his marching orders in the 73rd minute.
Booked earlier in the second half for a foul on Kenny Tete, the Honduran international had already tested Italian referee Luca Banti’s tolerance levels with another couple of poor fouls before he lunged in and caught El Ghazi late. The official was left with little option but to show him a second yellow card.
Deila sent on Tyler Blackett for Forrest to reinforce a defence which predictably found itself under sustained late pressure from Ajax. Klaassen screwed a close-range header wide, then substitute Arkadiusz Milik was unfortunate to see his headed attempt strike Gordon’s right-hand post. But just as the visiting fans dared to believe the 10 men would hang on to all three points, Ajax made it 2-2 with six minutes remaining. It was substitute Schone, who scored Ajax’s winner here on Celtic’s previous visit two years ago, who did the damage again with a swerving free-kick from the left which caught out Gordon and found the corner of the net.
It was almost worse for Celtic when Milik headed just over in stoppage time but they held on for a merited and valuable point.
Ajax: Cillessen, Tete, Veltman, Riedewald, Dijks; Gudelj, Fischer (Schone 75), Sinkgraven (Serero 62); El Ghazi, Klaassen, Younes (Milik 62). Subs not used: Boer, Van Rhijn, Van der Hoorn, Viergever.
Celtic: Gordon, Lustig (Ambrose 69). Boyata, Simunovic, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Commons (Janko 83), Johansen, Forrest (Blackett 75); Griffiths. Subs not used: Bailly, Ciftci, Mackay-Steven, Rogic.
Referee: L Banti (Ita)