Ajax 1-0 Celtic: Frank’s men finally score in the Amsterdam ArenA
A much more positive display from Frank de Boer’s Ajax saw them beat Celtic 1-0 in the Amsterdam ArenA through Lasse Schone’s second-half strike.
The Eredivisie champions set out completely different than usual, with striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and midfielder Schone on the wings to support captain Seim de Jong up front. Meanwhile, the midfield was full of youth and pace in the shape of Davy Klaassen, Thulani Serero and Daley Blind.
In some ways, though, the unconventional front three hindered them when they tried to break forward. The midfielders often tried to look wide as they picked the ball up in the centre of the field. Options on the flanks though were non-existent as Lasse Schone and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson often drifted inside and narrowed the play. The problem could have been alleviated but for Ricardo van Rhijn’s apparent reluctance to break into the final third.
As expected, the hosts dominated possession, but in the first period this much changed Ajax still looked too similar to the Ajax of previous weeks. A lot of possession, a lot of passes, but not enough forward movement or penetration. Sometimes they even seemed somewhat hesitant to go forward. There was, however, a hint of improvement as, when they did go forward, they did so with slightly more speed and sharpness than in the goalless displays against RKC and Vitesse in the ArenA recently.
When there was width in the team, they looked much brighter. Schone playing the ball in from the right side and Van Rhijn’s spectacular cross to De Jong, well saved by Forster, were the closest they came.
They looked somewhat shaky, however, whenever Celtic pressed them high up the park. Covering Denswil, Veltman and Blind, who dropped back, the visitors made it very difficult for Ajax to build from the back. Sometimes, the home side had to send the occasional aimless ball up the park – a rarity from the Amsterdam side.
Soon enough though, Ajax began to calm down. De Jong started to settle into the number nine role, Klaassen got over the nerves he showed in the opening minutes and Blind was an efficient anchor and intermittent third centre-back. There remained m some hindrances, though. Serero gave the ball away far too often and Sigthorsson lacks the technical ability to play as a winger, while his passing saw him cede possession too often as well.
Still, overall Ajax had more urgency about them. “We fought hard. I saw the will to win,” said De Boer after the game. And he was right. Ajax had been too flat, slow and predictable in recent weeks, but his rejigging of the team took care of the latter, while the atmosphere and the very occasion ensured there was some electricity in the players.
The second-half started brightly, with both teams raring to go. Beram Kayal was allowed to charge towards goal unchallenged, stopped only by his own inaccuracy as he sent the ball flying over the bar. From there, Ajax took the ball forward and looked for a way in. It came through a series of passes which ended with Schone flying through and slotting beyond Forster.
The speed, the exchange of passes and the movement among the players in the build up made it an incredibly delightful goal. It was very much an Ajax goal. For the home fans in the ArenA, it was great to finally get a glimpse of the style they are capable of playing.
After the opener, however, Celtic stepped it up a level and began to threaten more. A low Anthony Stokes shot was saved by Jasper Cillessen, then Kris Commons decided to fire towards goal, sending it over the bar, whereas a fantastic run from Stokes opened up acres of space but went unnoticed.
Later, James Forrest broke forward with great pace and the option to either pass it or go along, he hesitated and his pass was well cut out by Veltman. The centre-back was pivotal in Ajax holding onto the lead. His reading of the game, strength, the timing of his tackles and his speed are all impressive for a 21-year-old and he was deserving of the man of the match award.
While Celtic’s pressure increased, Serero, Blind and Klaassen all tracked back and remained narrow to keep them at bay.
“We showed that we wanted to attack,” said Blind. “The manager told us in no uncertain terms at half-time that we had to build from the back better and improve in general.
“We gave very little away; they had a few attempts from distance but no real clear chances as far as I can remember.”
Indeed, it was Ajax who came closest to hitting the net once again when a corner found Denswil standing in plenty of space, having lost his marker. His header had Forster beaten, but was kept out by the post.
For the final minutes, Sigthorsson was substituted for defender Mike van der Hoorn, a sign of De Boer’s desperation to hold onto the lead. Celtic continued to push forward, but found no joy as Ajax held out and took the three points.
It was a much needed win. After going two consecutive home games in the league without scoring, Ajax had finally registered a victory, leapfrogging Celtic and keeping their European dream alive.
While there were improvements in this display, Ajax are still not clinical enough to be confident in any way of taking second place. Even finishing above Celtic is a difficult task as the Glaswegians have the luxury of meeting Milan in the Fortress of Solitude that is Celtic Park, whereas Ajax must travel to the San Siro.