Ajax v Celtic: Commons gamble falls flat for Lennon

Thulani Serero (left) tracks Celtic ace Kris Commons. Picture: SNS
Thulani Serero (left) tracks Celtic ace Kris Commons. Picture: SNS
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Decisions, decisions. Amsterdam was awash with people making them yesterday. To go to that coffee house by the canal or the one across from it?

To play with the roof over the stadium or without it? The officials at the Amsterdam Arena elected to push the button that meant this high-pressure fixture was played in an even more intense atmosphere. Neil Lennon was wrestling with his own dilemma during the day.

Rather than dive into some pokey little Amsterdam establishment to seek “divine inspiration”, all Lennon could do was insert another small ball of snuff inside his cheek and consider what he knows about the player he clearly hoped would provide the creative spark for Celtic last night.

To play Kris Commons or accept that he couldn’t possibly be match fit having not played since departing with a hamstring strain against Hibs just over a fortnight ago? This was the call Lennon had to make. He opted to start the midfielder and there were few dissenting voices before the game.

After all, Commons is a rare player and one who helps Celtic tick. But there was a niggling worry provoked by the news that he would definitely start. Can he manage to step straight back into the groove in the Champions League of all places? Commons, more than most, excels when on a run of games.

Celtic ached to have his inspiring presence but it wasn’t the Kris Commons we know that we saw last night. Not even close to it. Unfortunately for Lennon, Commons proved how hard it is to step into such a high-octane occasion and expect adrenaline alone to pull you through. He was a yard off the play and his touch was poor. On so many occasions in the past Celtic could not have afforded to be without him. Last night, however, they could not afford to carry him, sadly. He was not alone. Lennon could have expected more from Georgios Samaras, who was also absent for Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Dundee United.

Lennon’s gambles have sometimes paid off. Indeed, it is possible to claim that they have more often than not. The nature of gambling means that you have to be wrong on some occasions. Although he said in the immediate aftermath of sending Efe Ambrose out against Juventus while the defender was still shaking the African sand from his boots that he wouldn’t have done things differently, you suspect Lennon might now admit that he should have thought again. Ambrose was at fault as Juventus marched into a 3-0 lead at Parkhead earlier this year.

There have been times when he has been vindicated eventually, such as against Shakhter Karagandy. Many eyebrows were raised when he paired Virgil van Dijk at the back with Steven Mouyokolo in Kazahstan in their second qualifying round fixture. The defenders were playing next to each other for the first time in a competitive fixture and it wasn’t pretty to observe. However, Celtic overturned the 2-0 deficit in the dying seconds of the home leg and the damage was rectified thanks to James Forrest’s late winner. The inclusion of Forrest against Ajax just over a fortnight ago was also shown to be astute given that he shook off virus fears to star in the victory against the Dutch side.

In fairness, the Commons decision was based on a number of things, not just his ability to get around the pitch. His presence offers another option at free kicks. And his ability to retain the ball is a significant bonus in European football where possession is so prized, particularly in away matches.

Celtic lived dangerously in the opening stages. But then they did so at Celtic Park just over a fortnight ago while managing to achieve a result that ensured last night meant more than it might otherwise have done.

It was possible to sense that Lennon believed something could be gained from last night – something historic. He said he would have bitten anyone’s hand off for a draw, but he felt it was not unrealistic to aim for something better. Hence the onus being placed on attack in terms of his team selection – Anthony Stokes, Samaras, Forrest and the returning Commons. This was a line-up that would not have looked out of place in a Premiership game against some lesser light. No-one could ever criticise Lennon’s ambition.

A spate of silly free kicks conceded around the edge of their box threatened to knock Celtic rather than Ajax out of their stride. Charlie Mulgrew, Samaras and Emilio Izaguirre were all guilty. Fortunately Fraser Forster was alert or the strikes were poor ones. Then Commons slid in clumsily just outside the box, a sign if ever there was one of a player operating below peak fitness. Again Ajax could not make the most of the opportunity afforded from the free kick. But it isn’t the Ajax way to have to rely on set-pieces. Five minutes after half-time they shrugged off their recent problems to score the kind of goal that vintage Ajax teams would have been proud to call one of theirs.

The impressive Lasse Schone was the fulcrum in the move and the one who supplied the exquisite final finish after he had exchanged passes with Davy Klaasen and Thulani Serero.

Celtic had plenty of time to find a response but couldn’t. By the time Commons exited the park after a surprisingly long stint of 80 minutes he was almost broken by the effort expended. It didn’t quite happen for him but he couldn’t be blamed for that. Others in better condition had proved below par. And Lennon might wonder about another critical personnel decision that didn’t quite come off.