There was a deep-seated angst among a section of the Celtic support over the fact that key figures Scott Brown, Kris Commons, Nir Bitton and Stefan Johansen were unavailable for the visit of Ajax last night. Yet with the dissolute nature of the back-to-back defeats by Molde that featured three of those four players still painfully fresh, another faction was of the opinion that doing without these mainstays could hardly make matters worse.
The most cynical had their preconceptions challenged by Ronny Deila’s decision to include Callum McGregor as one of the replacements for his experienced quartet; other available roles filled by Gary Mackay-Steven, Stuart Armstrong and Thomas Rogic.
Until last night, McGregor’s Celtic career had resembled the fortunes of an over-eager mountain climber. After toiling away for years in the younger age groups, last summer the 22-year-old scaled the summit during Deila’s early days… only to then promptly fall off.
The midfielder was the only player to show anything in the Norwegian’s troubled first few months. A time during which he scored three goals away from home in Champions League qualifiers, notably against Legia Warsaw and Maribor. More than any other individual, his efforts almost allowed the club to scale the football peak they were desperate to bag.
Within months, it was McGregor – who by then had signed a five-year deal – who had been bagged from the senior side. Last night represented only his second start of this season. His first was at home to Raith Rovers in a League Cup tie that attracted a mere 14,000.
The crowd was much bigger for the appearance of the Amsterdam side that shared with their hosts the ignominious distinction of having failed to win in Group A, a two-point haul having effectively left them in the win-or-forget-qualification position.
McGregor hardly seemed the man to revive the flagging continental fortunes of Deila’s side. However, when he picked up the ball midway inside the Ajax half in only the third minute and carved his way forward before curling a delightful effort just inside the far post of Jasper Cillessen’s net, he offered possibilities that seemed to have evaporated.
The Ajax equaliser that followed McGregor losing possession left Celtic thereafter searching in vain before they were undone late on. Until that 88th-minute matchwinner, by an 18-year-old no less on an evening when there was much chat about the youthfulness of Celtic, the hosts were never less than valiant in their attempts to retrieve the irretrievable. It was a night when Celtic’s European exit may have been confirmed, but which was not the root cause of it.
Ultimately, Celtic were not good enough. In Europe, they never have been during Deila’s 17 months and last night his winless run in the European League stretched to ten games. This group campaign is Celtic’s first during which they have failed to produce a home win. In Europe, Deila’s team have failed to produce full stop.