Celtic v Ajax Preview: Scottish and Dutch champions look to gain the upper hand in race for second place
With only one point separating Celtic and Ajax ahead of their Champions League match in Glasgow this evening, both teams are looking to gain the upper hand in the battle with AC Milan for second place. Frank de Boer and Neil Lennon have both stressed the importance of this clash, recognising that suffering defeat in the first leg of their double header will present them with a remarkably tough task in remaining in European competition beyond Christmas.
De Boer and his Ajax team will be out to get all three points from Group H’s fourth seed. After winning the Eredivisie for a third consecutive time, the 43-year-old coach set the target at the beginning of the season to see his team progress beyond the initial stages of the Champions League. Once again, though, the draw hasn’t been kind to the Amsterdammers, but they are still in with a chance of pipping Celtic and Milan to the runner-up spot.
“For third place, a draw might be enough, because we play in two weeks in Amsterdam,” said De Boer. “But we are eager to get second place, so we want to get three points.”Johan Derksen and Rene van der Gijp may have mocked Celtic and Giorgios Samaras on Voetbal International on Monday night (Derksen: “The Scottish league is nothing. Ajax cannot be beaten by Celtic,”), but De Boer has acknowledged the danger which awaits his team. In fact, the Ajax boss has insisted that Celtic are the favourites for tomorrow’s clash. “That’s because they are playing at home. The fans will flock to stand behind the team,” said the Ajax coach, but his team will not be too intimidated as they step out and are hit by the electrifying atmosphere which emanates from the stands. Visits to De Kuip, where only Feyenoord fans are allowed on the days Ajax come to town, will have prepared the squad for such a vociferous and hostile environment.
It’s not the atmosphere which will make the difference on Tuesday, though. If Ajax leave Celtic Park on Tuesday night without at least one point, it will most likely be down to their own inadequacy than any other factor.
Ajax have been frustratingly inconsistent this season and were left devoid of any creativity and defensive strength following the sale of Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld. Hammerings at the hands of Barcelona and PSV in a matter of days saw De Boer’s men reach a new low, but it has frightened him into making some changes to cover for the loss of his two golden boys. As always, youth is the key, which is just as well because it was the only way for them to get over such a rough patch.
De Toekomst graduates Stefano Denswil and Lesley De Sa have made a difference, while Lucas Andersen and Davy Klaassen have shown that they will become more important players as the season goes on.
The introduction of these players has seen Ajax improve dramatically. They are unbeaten in their last four matches, beating Go Ahead Eagles and Utrecht and drawing with AC Milan and current Eredivisie leaders Twente.
Despite the improvements, the aforementioned flaws in Ajax’s game are still haunting them. In the first half of Saturday’s fixture against Twente, they were remarkably flat and unproductive, while defensive frailty lead to Luc Castaignos opening the scoring and gifted him a few more chances. In the second period, they were much more threatening, but just like in the match against Milan a few weeks ago, they failed to take their chances and thus remain without a single win away from home this season. Too many attacks died at the feet of Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and his poor control. The striker, however, did show his capabilities as he pounced on a defensive howler and slotted home a late equaliser.
Imperative for Ajax is that captain Siem de Jong resemble the creative attacking midfielder we saw in the second half in Enschede as opposed to the stretched captain who tried to do too much at
once in the first 45 minutes. Creative, smooth and intelligent, he opened up a lot of chances for Ajax after the restart, whereas he was caught having to come too far back in order to help out in deeper areas prior to it. That, though, all came down to two very different attitudes of Twente.
With Michel Jansen’s men threatening in the first-half, De Jong had to come back to help out makeshift midfielder Daley Blind. In the second-half, Twente completely regressed into their own territory and allowed Ajax to press them, freeing up De Jong to keep moving forward and link up with Viktor Fischer and Sigthorsson.
It is crucial, then, that De Jong be given the freedom to keep moving forward on Tuesday night. Although not disastrous in midfield, Blind would much rather play at left-back, which will benefit both him and the team on Tuesday if De Boer allows him to.
With Scott Brown suspended, Celtic are without their captain and a key figure in the midfield. Ajax, setting out to play their own game as always, will dominate possession and a midfield trio of De Jong, Lasse Schone and Thulani Serero will allow them to apply more pressure in advanced areas while boosting the creativity of the team. Introducing Poulsen instead of either of the latter two, however, will allow for greater defensive stability.
Fischer and De Sa both have the potential to create a lot of danger. The young Denmark international has been very poor so far this season, but he can still pick out some key passes and use his speed to great effect and De Sa’s width, pace and skill will see him open up a lot of chances down the right wing.
Celtic, though, can be very dangerous if they break forward with speed. It is here that someone like Poulsen will be a key player. Fullbacks Blind and Ricardo van Rhijn will both bomb forward, but with Giorgios Samaras and James Forrest on the wings for the home team, they will look to catch them out with quick bursts down the wing. Poulsen dropping deep and Moisander and Denswil pushing out wide in the absence of the fullbacks will help deal with the pressure from Celtic’s duo as well as that of Teemu Pukki and Anthony Stokes.
The world famous and electrifying atmosphere at Celtic Park as well as Neil Lennon’s insistence that “Losing the game would probably end our aspirations for trying to qualify”, will put a lot of wind in Celtic’s sails. The dismissal of Brown against Barcelona in the previous match was followed by the only goal of the game which secured the three points for the Blaugrana.
Even with that defeat, Celtic’s home record in the Champions League is absolutely incredible, but they won’t be so defensively focused when they meet Ajax, which will gift some space for the visitors in advanced areas, but they simply have to take their chances should they arise. Moreover, they have to get beyond a fantastic shot-stopper in the shape of Fraser Forster.
It will be a close encounter between two very strong teams and the importance of this tie means both teams will be raring to go. Ajax will most likely enjoy the majority of possession, but they must convert that dominance to goals while remaining cautious of Celtic’s counter attacking ability.