CELTIC’S European dreams are in ruins tonight – and manager Ronny Deila and his players have no-one to blame but themselves.
For the third time in two games against Ajax they took the lead and once again they failed to finish the job. A possible six points evaporated to a solitary one and that was never going to be good enough to get through Europa League Group A.
No matter what happens against Fenerbahce in Istanbul next month, the Hoops will finish rock bottom of their section.
It was another tale of European woe and yet it all got off to such a mesmerising start.
The SPFL champions seized the initiative in the third minute when comeback Bhoy Callum McGregor scored after a marvellous flowing move carved open the Dutch rearguard.
Stuart Armstrong started it with a neat backheel to Tom Rogic who fed the ball wide left to Gary Mackay-Steven. He picked out the run of the galloping McGregor with a neat through pass.
The winger cut in onto his right foot and, from just outside the penalty box, struck a fine, measured low drive wide of the diving Jasper Cillesson down at his left-hand post.
It was an excellent piece of football, but, as usual, the defence looked timid as it tried to repel the response from Frank de Boer’s outfit.
In the 10th minute, Virgil Fischer hit an unstoppable first-time volley high past Craig Gordon, but Amin Yannes was flagged offside in the build-up.
It was a break for Deila’s men because the Ajax forward was a shade onside when he broke forward, but, to be fair, the Celtic back lot relaxed when the linesman’s flag went up which allowed Fischer time to race in and hammer in his powerful effort.
They lived dangerously again eight minutes later when they went to sleep at a neat free-kick when Fischer rolled in the unmarked Nemanja Gudelj, but his first touch was poor and his cross was snatched by Gordon.
But the shotstopper was left exposed once more in the 20th minute and this time the goal stood. Again, the rearguard didn’t look comfortable which has become the story of their European exploits and ultimate failure this season.
McGregor failed to control a Mkael Lustig pass in midfield and Ajax immediately sprinted forward. An effort from Fischer bounced off Gordon and spun into the air.
Dederyck Boyata had the opportunity to clear, but, while he dithered, Polish frontman Arkadiusz Milik acrobatically twisted just a handful yard from the line to flick the ball in.
Little had been seen of James Forrest since the start and McGregor was fading from view, too, as the Dutch side had the bulk of the possession.
Lustig was alarmingly slow to spot the danger when Younes drifted in from the left to scorch an effort at goal that rose just over the crossbar with Gordon in trouble.
In the 36th minute, Leigh Griffiths squandered a superb chance to give the Hoops the lead.
Referee Felix Zwayer, of Germany, played the advantage rule after McGregor was fouled by Mike van der Hoorn. The ball reached Griffiths on the left-hand side of the box, but the striker, from a tight angle, made a poor decision and fired the ball into the sidenet.
It wasn’t a good night for the hitman who made bad choices throughout. He started the second-half in the same manner when he hurriedly swung in a cross from the left when there wasn’t a single Celtic jersey in the penalty area.
There were groans, too, when Mackay-Steven surrendered possession on two occasions when he had the chance to keep the pressure on.
In the 56th minute, Griffiths slashed one wide of the post when Mackay-Steven was screaming for a pass and in a better position.
It was turning out to be a night to forget and Deila reacted by putting on Charlie Mulgrew and Scott Allan for Rogic and Mackay-Steven.
Allan’s presence raised the tempo of the game and he had a moment of brilliance when he played in Griffiths with a neat flick.
However, the striker hit the keeper and the ball rolled harmlessly for a corner-kick.
McGregor thought he had claimed a second with a 25-yard drive which hit an Ajax defender and floated over the keeper before hitting the top of the crossbar and bouncing to safety. The visitors also hit the woodwork when Younes cut in from the left, but his effort struck the left-hand post.
Two minutes from the end, Forrest and Allan combined at a left-wing corner-kick to present Ajax with the ball. Forrest elected to try a short one, despite all the big lads moving into the box.
Allan was slow to react and was robbed by substitute Vaclav Cerny. He raced forward in a threatening manner, played a one-two and simply hammered a final shot between Gordon and his near post for the winner and the final nail in the coffin.
If any goal typified the lack of awareness of the Hoops defence in this competition it had to be that one. Ajax took the ball from one end of the pitch without a serious tackle before the keeper was all too easily beaten.
It was a sad ending to a miserable excursion in Europe and Deila will have some answers to find after three consecutive defeats from Molde and Ajax.
Many Celtic supporters headed for the exit when the Ajax winner went in. Usually one guy starts it and others follow in his footsteps. Tonight we can name the guy who started the exodus – C Mulgrew who is probably on about £15,000 a week. Hope he’s never seen again in Paradise.
Ajax, whose manager’s forehead seems to grow with age, celebrated a hollow victory. They are relying on Celtic winning in Turkey. Good luck with that one!
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Boyata, Simunovic, Tierney (sub: Izaguirre 78); Mackay-Steven (sub: Allan 71), Armstrong; Forrest, Rogic (sub: Mulgrew 65), McGregor; Griffiths.
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