Virgil van Dijk has never had any joy as a player on his visits to the Amsterdam Arena in the past, but he sounds like a man who is relishing his return to his homeland for another crack at Ajax.
You wouldn’t say that this most laidback of centre-halves was trash-talking ahead of tonight’s seismic Champions League clash with Frank de Boer’s team, but he wasn’t slow in pointing out that the locals are getting restless and that all the pressure is on the home team.
“I watched the Vitesse game against Ajax at the weekend,” said Van Dijk of a game that Vitesse won 1-0. “Vitesse deserved to win and now Ajax have to beat us. I think we have a big chance to win the game. Maybe them being under pressure could work in our advantage. Their fans expect more. I’d say the clubs [Celtic and Ajax] are the same because they always have to win and the fans expect it, but at Ajax, they have a small group of big supporters and the rest are spectators. At Celtic, everyone is a hard supporter.”
Here is a Dutchman seemingly calling out Ajax for having only a small core of diehard fans. Whether they are the ones who rip up seats, he wouldn’t say. He wouldn’t go much further than a little jibe at the Ajax support, but there is a bit of devil in Van Dijk, a modicum of mischief. “I’ve never won in the Amsterdam ArenA, so I hope this is a first time. I feel better equipped going there with Celtic and this is a different stage. When you are growing up in Holland as a footballer, you want to be able to go to Ajax, play in their stadium and win. Everyone wants to win in the ArenA.”
Van Dijk is the one undoubted success Celtic have had in the transfer market since the summer. The rest have made no impression – or an altogether wrong impression, à la Nir Biton and his red card and Derk Boerrigter and his fleeting appearances. Amido Balde has an awful lot of growing up to do and Teemu Pukki hasn’t caught fire yet. Nowhere close. Van Dijk has stood alone as the one new boy who has made a difference.
Much has happened to these two clubs in the past 12 months, when the pair of them picked off big Champions League wins. Ajax beat Manchester City and Celtic beat Barcelona but these are not the same sides as they were then. They have suffered losses. Key players have been sold on and they are both struggling to replace them. Ajax have no solution for the void left by Christian Eriksen and Celtic have not found a striker of the class of Gary Hooper. De Boer’s team that beat City 3-1 in Amsterdam last October contained seven players who did not start the match at Parkhead a fortnight ago. This is their reality. They turn players around and then try to rebuild on the move.
This is working marginally better for Celtic than it is for Ajax. For now at any rate. That might all change tonight, but the fact is that Ajax are coming in for some stick from their supporters after only one win in five matches. Asked yesterday whether that tension in the ArenA might be a plus for Celtic, manager Neil Lennon responded: “We’ll take any advantage we can get, whether it be the fans or the team or players lacking confidence because, away from home, you get very little.”
De Boer has also talked quite a lot about confidence. As in, Celtic have it and Ajax don’t. “We’re under the most pressure,” said De Boer, “but, normally in football, when you’re under the most pressure you play the best games. If we want to have a meaningful say in this group, we must get three points.”
Ajax have won only one of their last eight European ties, albeit they faced Barcelona, Milan, Dortmund and Real Madrid in that run. Ajax have won only one of their five European encounters against Celtic. More relevant, perhaps, is that Celtic have won only once on the road in 25 Champions League matches and haven’t kept a clean sheet away from home in Europe’s leading competition since 1988.
Celtic will have a better team on the park tonight than they did last time around against Ajax. Scott Brown is still suspended, but Kris Commons will start and Joe Ledley has more game time under his belt now than he had then. Lennon has increased options in his midfield and attack and he will need them. Save for a penalty decision and a deflected second goal, Celtic were blunt against Ajax a fortnight ago. They were lucky and Lennon has admitted as much.
“There is a lot of confidence in our team but we don’t want to be overconfident,” he said. “This is an Ajax team that was minutes away from beating AC Milan so, despite their current form not being what it should be, they are still a very formidable team at home. Whatever competition we were in when I was a player, I always believed.
“When I played under Martin [O’Neill] and Gordon [Strachan] I believed I would win the game, no matter who we played against. You looked across the dressing room and you saw some great players and you would think: ‘We’ve got a chance here’. The manager always gave us that belief and I want to transmit that to the players. There is a good belief about them but I want to temper that with the fact that we’re playing Champions League football away from home.
“I hope the likes of Samaras, Commons and James [Forrest] will have big games because the stage is set for them and we really want them to go and showcase their talent. We’re not going to be negative. We’re going to be positive. The only time we’ve really gone out to contain a team was in Barcelona. You can’t just go toe to toe with them. You have to be different in your approach because they’re a cut above other teams in the competition.
“With Ajax away we can try to get a foothold and stamp our own play on the game when we can. That comes with being brave on the ball and I’d like to see us do that a lot more. We have to, if we’re going to get something out of the game.”