Lots went right last night, with only a few nits to pick.
Compare and contrast the key area of the field – central mid – with the game away in Malmo. With Bitton and Brown in their usual roles, Stefan Johansen dropped off his common (or Commons, if you like) position behind the striker to give us a central midfield three. As a result, everything clicked. Ajax were unable to pass through us, while central defence looked protected.
Again, Bitton was our main man. Always looking for a pass, always comfortable in possession, no matter how many opponents were in close proximity. He even managed a Paul McStay-esque (that’s where you recognised it from) pass 40 yards ahead of Johansen in the second half. Brown and Johansen ran like clockwork alongside him and we looked like a team!
You’ll also have recognised the corner which led to Mikael Lustig’s goal. It was a carbon copy of Kris Commons’ effort, minutes from the end of the Qarabag game, and minutes after he came on as a substitute, which brought the only goal of that tie. It was drilled directly with the top of the foot, a very unusual and difficult delivery but one which, if executed well, is very dangerous. Commons also got an assist for the first goal, an even more impressive piece of footwork before placing an inch-perfect pass between two Ajax defenders. Bitton’s controlled shot was sublime (I’ll avoid calling it Wakaso-esque, no need to jinx the lad).
I thought both full backs played well, until Izaguirre’s second yellow, of course. Izzie and Lustig were both booked for throwing themselves into challenges. It wasn’t a game for holding back to see what will happen next, so I’ve sympathy for the initial yellows, but Izzie had a game-intelligence bypass. His second yellow came a minute after another robust foul. The red was inevitable. It probably cost us the win. The player is fighting for his place, and next contract, right now. The pain on his face as he left the field was real, but he needs this pressure. The lack of competition hasn’t been good for him in recent years. Don’t write him off yet.
One frustration I had was that we didn’t get James Forrest on the ball often enough. James has the weapon of pace in his boots but we didn’t once manage to exploit it. Perhaps as a consequence Leigh Griffiths had a frustrating night with little to feast on. I’d have changed James role or replaced him earlier.
And what about Efe? Why he decided to take a man on, 20 yards from his own goal, a moment after coming on, only Efe will know, but thereafter he was the most influential player in securing the point. When Janko came on Efe pulled tight into a role as a defacto central defender. He took responsibility and helped what was by then a relatively inexperienced defence.
When my youngest heard that Jozo Simunovic was making his debut there was a sharp intake of breath. “But what if he makes a mistake? All we’ll know about him is he’s made a mistake in a huge game.” Jozo looked the part, covered ground efficiently. It was a good start.
So what went wrong? Lustig went to ground on the wing, didn’t get the ball and left 20 yards of space open behind him. This drew Celtic defenders out of position to cover, which Ajax exploited excellently to score their first goal. They opened us up once more like this shortly thereafter, but that apart, they didn’t lay a glove on us until we were down to 10 men.
I’m pretty angry at the second Ajax goal. It was another cross into the six yard box we failed to attack. Dedryck Boyata ran between the two Ajax attackers in attendance, but seemed to be distracted by their runs. No one attacked the ball. Get your starting position right and attack the ball – that’s the rule on set-pieces. We’re not following it.
And for the record, Craig Gordon was faultless for this one. A keeper has to stay on his line when a cross flies over attackers and defenders alike. Whatever lies behind our recent frailties at defending cross balls, I suspect it’s not gone away.
The margins between success and failure in this group are shaping up to be thin. Ajax could have snatched three points at the end, we would have won the game if Izzie had stayed on the field. I’m not sure how I feel about Molde winning in Istanbul. A group with two difficult competitors now looks like a group with no easy games. The group’s top seeds and the early favourites are both licking wounds this morning.
So let’s win it.
One big benefit from last night is that we can look forward to Sunday’s important game with a bit of enthusiasm. The good people at Magners have again offered us two Premium Seats in the Jock Stein Stand for Sunday. To win them, all you need to do is answer the following question:
Who do Celtic play on Sunday?
Email me, with your answer in the subject field, at firstname.lastname@example.org
The competition closes at 2pm today, so there’s not much time and likely to be little competition. And while you’re at it, how about donating a £1 to our Mary’s Meals, Malawi school kitchen appeal? It takes moments to get involved here.