Even a performance of greater merit than many produced by notionally stronger line-ups this season could not prevent Celtic’s elimination from the Europa League being confirmed with a third consecutive Group A defeat last night.
The absence of four key members of their side, including skipper Scott Brown, was a mitigating factor on this occasion for the Scottish champions as they succumbed to an 88th-minute winner from Ajax substitute Vaclav Cerny.
But Ronny Deila’s makeshift line-up could consider themselves unfortunate to lose a contest they led through Callum McGregor’s fourth-minute goal which was cancelled out by Polish international striker Arkadiusz Milik.
The real damage in this tournament was done in previous matches, most notably the back- to-back defeats against Molde, and leaves Celtic’s trip to face Fenerbahce in Istanbul on 10 December as a dead rubber.
To accommodate his enforced personnel changes, Deila made a rare deviation from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. McGregor’s inclusion in the central midfield area of the 4-1-4-1 set-up, preferred to Scott Allan or Charlie Mulgrew, was vindicated by his part in Celtic’s hugely promising start to the contest.
McGregor flourished in the early days of Deila’s tenure last season, his three goals in Champions League qualifiers during that spell even earning him a call-up to the senior Scotland squad. The 22-year-old’s star has waned considerably since then, to the extent his only previous starting appearance for Celtic this season came in the League Cup tie against Raith Rovers.
But as Deila’s reshuffled side made a bright and aggressively positive start to this contest, McGregor provided hope this may turn out to be a triumph over adversity as he gave them their early lead.
Receiving the ball from Gary Mackay-Steven, he drifted in from the left and easily eluded the challenge of a hesitant Mike van der Hoorn, the Ajax central defender who was drafted into their side late in the day when first choice Joel Veltman called off because of illness.
McGregor made the most of the space he was afforded, curling a perfectly placed right-foot shot from the edge of the penalty area beyond Jasper Cillessen’s left hand into the bottom corner of the net.
Ajax took some time to find any degree of composure after that setback, although Amin Younes was unfortunate to be flagged offside when he lashed a shot beyond Craig Gordon high into the net in the 11th minute.
As encouraging as Celtic’s opening was, it quickly became clear that Ajax would pose a threat with the pace and movement of their attacking players. It was their speed of thought which almost caught Celtic out when Nemanja Gudelj cleverly played a free-kick short to Lasse Schone on the right of the penalty area, his effort from a tight angle clutched by Gordon.
But the Celtic goalkeeper, who at 32 was by far the elder statesman of a Celtic side with an average age of exactly 24, was unable to prevent Ajax’s 22nd-minute equaliser.
As has so often been the case for Celtic in Europe under Deila, it was a concession borne of slackness and individual error.
Unfortunately for McGregor, his heavy touch presented Ajax with the opening which saw Schone’s shot deflected into the path of Viktor Fischer. The Danish international’s effort was parried by Gordon but Fischer was able to guide the loose ball into the path of Milik who hooked home a shot from close range.
The goal sparked a period where the momentum was with the visitors. A mistake by Tom Rogic, who began the night in the holding midfield role for Celtic before being switched into a more advanced position, allowed Ajax captain Davy Klaassen to set up a chance for the lively Younes who curled a shot narrowly over.
Kieran Tierney, delivering another enterprising display at left-back for Celtic, got the hosts back on to the front foot with a surging run to play in Leigh Griffiths on the left side of the penalty area but the striker screwed his shot wide.
Griffiths was more isolated than usual in Celtic’s reshaped system, the lone striker feeding on scraps such as when he latched on to a long Gordon clearance and managed to engineer a position for a shot comfortably held by Cillessen.
Ajax dominated possession for the opening 20 minutes of the second half, albeit without causing too much concern to the Celtic defence. Deila’s men had lost impetus and he responded with a couple of changes, Mulgrew replacing Rogic and Allan coming on for Mackay-Steven.
It prompted the desired response as Celtic increased the urgency and tempo of their work. McGregor almost snatched his second goal of the night when his 20-yard shot was deflected on to the crossbar, then a delicious pass from Allan sent Griffiths clear on goal, only for his shot to be diverted wide by a fine save from Cillessen.
The pressing need to find a winner, which applied to both teams, was intensified by news of Fenerbahce leading in Molde. Celtic should have gone in front when Mulgrew headed wide from close range, then Younes struck Gordon’s left-hand post with a curling shot.
Both teams were fully committed to attack and it was Ajax who plundered a decisive strike. Allan’s cheap loss of possession left Celtic exposed at the back, allowing Milik to lead a counter which presented 18-year-old Cerny with the chance to plant a precise shot beyond Gordon.
Celtic, who have now conceded 15 goals in their last seven European games, finished another miserable night with just ten men as Mulgrew limped down the tunnel.
Referee: S Vincic (Slo)
CELTIC: Gordon, Lustig. Boyata, Simunovic, Tierney (Izaguirre 78); Rogic (Mulgrew 66); Forrest, McGregor, Armstrong, Mackay-Steven (Allan 72); Griffiths. Subs not used: Bailly, Ambrose, Ciftci, Stokes.
AJAX: Cillessen, Tete, Van der Hoorn (Sanogo 80), Riedewald, Dijks; Schone (Van de Boek 72), Klaassen, Gudelj; Fischer (Cerny 69), Milik, Younes. Subs not used: Boer, van Rhijn, Heitinga, Viergever.