Celtic 2-1 Ajax: ineffective Ajax left to rue their missed chances
Overall it was a game between two evenly matched sides. Two critical moments made the difference between Ajax and Celtic over the 90 minutes if their Champions League clash at Celtic Park. A poor decision from Stefano Denswil gifted the hosts a penalty in the first-half, before a deflection from the young centre-back saw Beram Kayal’s shot hit the back of the net. Although luck played a part, the visitors saw enough of the ball to cancel it out and at least scrape a point. But there simply wasn’t enough to Ajax to do so.
“We had the better chances,” Frank de Boer reflected. “But the best team does not always win. We dominated the game.”
He may have a point, but there’s only so long he can bemoan the lack of luck and the apparent injustice that his dominant side aren’t winning games. It was the same story against AC Milan, it repeated itself on Saturday against Twente and then again on Tuesday. But what good is creating opportunities when you lack the power and the punch to convert them?
This young team has technique, skill and drive in the form of Lucas Andersen, Viktor Fischer, Thulani Serero and Siem de Jong, but they lack the electricity and creativity required to get them out of holes such as that they were in against Neil Lennon’s team.
Celtic showed they would make it difficult for the Amsterdam side in the early stages. They put them under pressure and forced them high up the pitch. Ajax, intent on playing their own game, struggled to build momentum and commence circulating the ball in their opponent’s half where they feel most comfortable.
As the first-half wore on though, De Boer’s team started to push forward a bit more and looked more comfortable. Fischer’s movement in advanced areas meant Ajax’s circulation of the ball improved. Christian Poulsen’s short, crisp passes was an asset for De Godenzonen as he helped set the tempo, while balancing out the midfield then dropping deep to become a third centre back to gift Ricardo van Rhijn and Daley Blind the freedom to burst forward. The Dane hit the post from close range, Sigthorsson and Serero both failed to get the better of Fraser Forster in a one-on-one and only a superb tackle prevented Fischer from bearing down on goal. Chances had been scuppered but at least they were being crated in Celtic’s very own Fortress of Solitude.
The hosts were clearly weakened by the absence of Scott Brown and Kris Commons, but they covered for it well with their pressure and their confidence. Ajax were unable to do that. The problems which have plagued them throughout the campaign so far remained. Creativity, fluidity and momentum as well as a killer instinct were all clearly lacking.
As the first period looked to be fading out to a draw, Ajax failed to clear a corner and one silly decision saw Denswil knock down Stokes and give James Forrest the opportunity to knock home the opener from 12 yards. And he did so with aplomb.
As with their previous Champions League match against AC Milan, a spot kick proved crucial, but at least in this case it was deserved. Denswil was wrong to commit himself like that and De Boer was quick to point it out after the game. “You cannot just give away a penalty,” he told Voetbal International after the game. “It’s unfortunate, but it has to do with youth and inexperience. As a defender you should never make the first move in such a situation. Stefano did and Stokes made good use of it.”
The second period had a bright start. Forrest’s pace saw him fly past Blind, but the cross lead to nothing. Then, Ajax burst forward with Serero finding himself through on goal. A glorious opportunity, but the youngster buckled under the pressure and Forster came out on top. Celtic attacked straight away, subsequently winning a corner. Failing to deal with it again, it bounced out to Kayal and again Denswil played a crucial role, diverting it past Jasper Cillessen to make it 2-0. A lucky goal for Celtic as it came from a natural reflex from the 20-year-old, but it was crucial.
From then, Celtic only had to contain the Dutch champions, and they did it well. Winless on the road and scoring more than one goal in a single away match on only two occasions, the odds of an inspiring Ajax resurgence weren’t great. They had chances, though, most noticeably when Sigthorsson saw a shot go wide, but they couldn’t capitalise.
Nicolai Boilesen, Lesley de Sa and Lasse Schone were all introduced by De Boer, and the latter smashed in a 20 yard strike in the dying seconds to halve the deficit, but it was too late.
The away side can rue their missed opportunities. They did create slightly more than Celtic, had more possession and didn’t have the luck their opponents enjoyed. But this wasn’t good enough and it’s through their own inadequacy that they leave without a point.
Andersen looked bright but there was only so much he could do on the right flank, Fischer had the ideas but lacked execution and De Jong wasn’t as influential as usual. In the key moments, Denswil made one big mistake and was then unlucky, while Serero buckled and Sigthorsson floundered.
Overall, there was little to separate the two teams beyond the two crucial moments. In fact, neither side is particularly stronger than the other. De Boer is entirely confident that Ajax will win when the two teams meet in Amsterdam on the 6th of November, and he has every right to be sure. Ajax may have failed to win a single game on the road so far this year, but they’ve won every single league match in the Arena.
However, Celtic will do everything they can to contain the Eredivisie giants, which means Ajax will need to take every chance they create, or else it will be the same story from De Boer and the Ajacieden once again.