Champions League Preview: Ajax v Celtic

Following the 2-1 defeat to Celtic two weeks ago, there remained a slither of optimism in the Ajax team. A belief that all would be made right in Amsterdam when they took Neil Lennon’s men back for the reverse fixture.

“We had the better chances. We dominated the game,” lamented Ajax coach Frank de Boer after the match that night in Glasgow. “But if we play like we did tonight in the next match, then we certainly will beat them. I really believe that.”

The coach’s opinion was shared by most in the Netherlands. Ajax, it was thought, were relatively unlucky, so repeating that showing in the Dutch capital would see them get the better of their Scottish counterparts. However, results and, much more so, performances since then have seen that optimism completely diminish. There are now very few reasons to believe they can even repeat that level of display against the Glasgow side on Wednesday night. In only two weeks, the confidence has been replaced by fear. Genuine fear.

De Boer’s team have only struggled in the fortnight since they succumbed to the Scottish champions even though both of their subsequent league games have been at home. They first came up against lowly RKC. The Waalwijk club were stuck at the bottom of the table, having lost all of their previous seven games. With Ajax desperate to recover from their midweek despair, it seemed a thorough hammering was on the cards. Worryingly, the Eredivisie champions failed to produce. The home side may have dominated the game, but they were ultimately impotent and flat. To fail to score that night was particularly embarrassing, but to fail to even threaten to score despite their 75% possession was simply atrocious.

Then, on Saturday night, they faced a very tough Vitesse team. As it was only the second game of the weekend in a freakishly tight league, the victors of the clash would go top of the table. It was a fairly even encounter, with both teams creating chances. Ajax came closest right at the death with a low header being saved by Vitesse goalkeeper Piet Velthuizen. The ball was cleared and picked up again from the hosts’ defence, but a poor pass from left-back Nicolai Boilesen was seized upon by Valeri Qazaishvili, who slotted home from outside the box in the 90th minute to steal the win for Vitesse.

For the third successive week in the Eredivisie, Ajax (along with Twente and PSV) dropped points, failing to score for the second league game in a row.

De Boer and his charges may have been able to take solace in the fact that part of their defeat to Celtic was down to luck, but since then their ability to hold the neglect of Lady Fortune responsible for their failures has decreased immensely.

The Eredivisie powerhouse may be able to hold onto the ball for great lengths of time, but copious amount of possession does not earn points. They are hardly even registering more shots than their opponents at present. At half-time in their Champions League match with Milan, they had 70% possession, but nothing to show for it. Again they were unlucky when Mario Balotelli dived to earn a penalty in injury time and cancel out Stefano Denswil’s 90th minute header. But again they saw enough of the ball to ensure refereeing incompetence had minimal impact on the result.

They lack incisiveness and ititiative up front, as well as bravery and they are no longer able to make the smooth transition from defence to attack and vice versa, which allows other sides to create chances against them.

Ajax have become slow, predictable and altogether powerless. They are still adapting to the post-Christian Eriksen era. The young Dane’s creativity, intelligence, vision and passing ability are sorely missed and it has left worryingly tame.

While Eriksen, captain Siem de Jong and veteran Christian Poulsen made an excellent midfield trio which tied the entire team together and gave them a great balance, the midfield has since gone into complete and utter disarray. De Jong’s form, and thus his influence, has dropped immensely, there is no shape to the midfield and introducing the likes of Thulani Serero and Lerin Duarte has made no significant improvement as of yet.

There are other weaknesses in the team, however. Teenage wonderkid Viktor Fischer had an electrifying debut season in the iconic red and white jersey of Ajax, but he has been unable to carry last year’s performances onto this season. The young Dane is obviously a fantastic and bright player and inside him is an ability to make the difference for his team, he has just found it impossible to bring that out in this campaign. He is sure he can turn his form around soon and that the rest of the team will too.

“It could be better,” the 19-year-old admitted to NUsport on Monday. “That’s obvious. But it’s too much to talk about a personal crisis or a crisis at Ajax.

“Right now it’s important to train hard and get to the game against Celtic on Wednesday and then it will come good, of that I’m convinced.”

Striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson has also been largely inefficient for the most part of the current season. Despite his six goals in 12 league appearances, his first touch is rather heavy and it is argued he lacks the technical ability required to lead the lines for Ajax, who pride themselves on the distinct Total Football style.

On the other hand, it hasn’t been easy for the Icelandic frontman. The service has been poor as the team haven’t been able to play the intricate, intelligent passes in the final third which has guided them to three straight Eredivisie titles. Eriksen was the sole provider of impeccable passes behind defenders to Fischer and Sigthorsson and no one has been able to take up that role since he left.

With young players like Fischer, Lucas Andersen, Lesly De Sa, Davy Klaassen, Denswil, Joel Veltman and Ricardo van Rhijn, there is reason to believe that, in the long term, their issues will resolve themselves. In the short-term, though, and particularly for this week’s clash with Celtic, there is very little reason to be confident.

In reality, the only positives for Ajax heading into this game are the clichéd claims of home advantage and the effect of the big occasions. While they cannot boast a European home record like that of Wednesday’s foes, the Amsterdam ArenA, like Celtic Park, is where they are at their best. They play their own style in every game, setting up to attack and dominate, regardless of the opponent. This works better on their own ground than anywhere else. Also, like Celtic, the Dutch side can often play a level above themselves when it comes to the most important nights and it is here the game-changing potential of Fischer and Andersen and the instinct of Sigthorsson come into play. De Boer’s aim at the start of the campaign was to keep his team in the Champions League beyond the winter break and his players are desperate to make it happen and this is their last chance to do it.

“[Celtic] will go into this game more confident than us because we’re the team under pressure right now,” De Boer said earlier this week, but it was his following comment which was the crucial point. “Normally in football when you’re under the most pressure you play the best games.

“How big is the match with Celtic? Well, if we want to have a meaningful say in this group, we must get three points. That’s clear.

“I’m sure the confidence will return to my team because we have a lot of quality in the squad. I will keep telling them that.”

His players have got the message too. “Against Celtic it is all or nothing,” De Jong said to De Telegraaf. “We must go into that game with the feeling that we need him to win.”

This is very much their last chance if there is any way of even getting third place, let alone second. Rising up to the occasion is critical, but Celtic are out to do the same thing. If the first meeting showed anything, it was that there is very little between these two teams. Ajax simply need to find that cutting edge they have been so clearly missing in recent weeks. However, that looks like a very tall order to make at this time.

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