AJAX 2 CELTIC 2
CELTIC’S 10 men hung on heroically for a point in a tension-laden, incident-packed Europa League opener against Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena.
Emilio Izaguirre saw red following a crazy challenge in the 74th minute after already being booked 10 minutes into the second-half. It was an act of sheer folly from the Honduran that sees him automatically miss the next game against Fenerbahce.
It left his team-mates with a mountain to climb and to their credit they responded. They were six minutes away from a famous victory when once again all their good work was dynamited by a deadball.
Kris Commons handled a left-wing cross from Mitchell Dijks – linked with the Hoops in the summer – and it was a definite free-kick. Lasse Schone, who scored in both European ties against the Parkhead side two years ago, stepped up to whip a wicked ball into the penalty area.
Only he will know if it was intended as a shot, but it whizzed over friend and foe, bewildered Craig Gordon and ended up in the back of the net. The 1,300 Celtic fans in the 50,000 crowd were silenced as the home supporters roared their team forward for the winner.
However, Ronny Deila’s battling 10 men managed to see out their extra five added-on minutes to earn a well-won point.
And, yet once again, the Hoops made it tough for themselves after getting of to a flying start with the breakthrough goal in only eight minutes.
Gordon hammered a kick deep into the Ajax area, the defence tried to walk the ball out, but Nir Bitton swept in to pick up the loose ball, play a wonderful one-two with the impressive Commons, accept the return and first-time a low right-foot drive past the helpless Jasper Cillesson, who looked a bag of nerves all night.
There was a scare only moments later when new Bhoy Jozo Simunovic, making his debut after his £5.5million transfer last week, diverted a ball just a few feet wide of Gordon’s post.
The Croat will obviously take time to settle into Deila’s system, but it doesn’t look as though he was bought for his silky skills. He’s certainly no Virgil van Dijk and a lot of his passes out of defence tonight were way off target. However, no doubt he’ll get used to the players around about him and the Celtic supporters will see him emerge as the campaign goes on.
Certainly, he couldn’t be blamed when the Dutch league leaders drew level in the 24th minute with a neat goal although an experienced campaigner such as Mikael Lustig will wonder how he was beaten so easily out on the wing.
The Swede dived into a tackle on speedy Amin Younes and was left on his backside as the Ajax youngster swept inside. He knocked a pass to Davy Klaassen who neatly backheeled the ball in front of Viktor Fischer and he thumped a low drive from the edge of the penalty area low past the diving Gordon at the left hand post.
Stefan Johansen, struggling yet again to make an impact, gave away possession shortly afterwards, but the Amsterdam outfit didn’t capitalise and the chance was gone.
James Forrest, too, provided very little on the left touchline against a pacy opponent in Tete. He took him on for pace a couple of times early on, but the right-back was more than able to match the Celt.
Five minutes from the interval, Celtic almost grabbed the advantage for the second time. Izaguirre took a throw deep in enemy territory. Forrest, for once, wasn’t marked as he jinked to the bye-line before picking out Leigh Griffiths. However, the frontman squandered a tremendous opportunity by failing to catch the ball properly on the turn and Cillessen scrambled the mishit effort round the post.
However, two minutes later, the Hoops had better luck – and on this occasion they were celebrating a deadball effort for themselves.
Dijks just beat Commons to a low Griffiths cross to prod the ball out for a left-wing corner-kick. Commons, deadly as ever, sent in a cunning, well-driven ball and Lustig arrived just in time at the back post to head the ball down and into the net with the keeper and his defenders scrambling in a vain effort to keep it out.
Ten minutes into the second-half, Forrest had two opportunities after Cillessen again flapped at a corner-kick so expertly delivered by Commons, this time from the right. The ball fell to the winger who fired it into traffic. It bounced back to him and he staged an action replay and an Ajax defender was happy to hoof it to safety.
On the hour mark, Griffiths missed the chance to net a third. Commons picked him out with a crafty ball at the back post to the striker’s favoured left foot, but he wasn’t convincing as he walloped it into the sidenet. It wasn’t one of the attacker’s better nights.
Lustig and Johansen followed Izaguirre by picking up yellow cards as the game was played at a hectic pace with no quarter asked or given.
The Swede came off in the 68th minute to be replaced by Efe Ambrose and one of the first things the erratic Nigerian defender did was give the ball away in a dangerous position. Dedryck Boyata came to his rescue. Efe recovered and after his early error he never put a foot wrong and won numerous important challenges inside the Celtic penalty area.
Izaguirre, who had an excellent first half, saw red six minutes later and it was backs-to-the-wall stuff after that. Deila immediately withdrew the ineffective Forrest and threw on Tyler Blackett to take over the left-back spot.
In the 80th minute, the Dutch thought they had made it all-square when Anwaar El Ghazi picked out substitute Milik with an excellent ball in from the right. The tall striker stetched to get his head to the ball and flicked it over Gordon’s flayling arms.
Luck, for a change, smiled on Celtic as the ball clattered against the woodwork and Gordon, with the help of a couple of defenders, managed to claw the ball away from the line.
Alas, the old deadball drama came back to haunt the SPFL champions as the clock ticked down. It was a strange goal, but Ajax weren’t complaining as they celebrated big-style and then rolled forward looking for a winner. You could argue that an eleven man Celtic would have had the left back on the far post for this cross.
They came close when a Milik header cleared the bar, but, in the end, fortune favoured the brave and gallant Celtic earned their point. Once again, though, they did it the hard way.
With a surprise result in Turkey, Celtic can qualify with a three wins in a packed Paradise.
It’s time for Ronny to hear the Celtic roar that only 60,000 can produce.
Crisis? What crisis!
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig (sub: Ambrose 68), Boyata, Simunovic, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Commons (sub: Janko 83), Johansen, Forrest (sub: Blackett 74); Griffiths.