Celtic entered their third European match of the season needing three points to keep their Champions League hopes alive after losing to AC Milan and Barcelona in their first two games. Ajax weren’t in much of a better position having only taken a solitary point from meetings with Barcelona and Milan.
The match began with Ajax passing the ball around but not doing an awful lot with it for the first 10 minutes or so. The first real chance of the game came to Celtic when, on the 13th minute, Mikel Lustig drilled a low cross into the front post for the perfectly timed run of Teemu Pukki, who couldn’t get the necessary contact on the fast-paced ball to divert it towards the goal. That signaled the start of a much more open game, and just a minute later, Sigthórsson found himself space on the right wing after Izaguirre wandered out of position into the center of the pitch, but his cross could only find the grateful arms of Fraser Forster.
In the first 25 minutes, Ajax did not make their majority possession pay, but soon after, an out-swinging free kick from the right wing was flicked on by an Ajax head to be turned away at the back post by Lustig. If the Swede had faltered, it almost certainly would have ended in a goal. A few minutes, later a free kick taken from the same side fell to Poulsen, who drifted away from Mulgrew at the back post but could do no more than rattle the crossbar.
This led to a period of sustained pressure from the Dutch side, but they failed to create anything from it. The 33rd minute saw arguably the most important tackle from a Celtic player all night. After a Mulgrew free kick was cleared, Ajax raced away on the counter, Kayal kept up and, as the last line of defence, made a sliding tackle and the danger was cleared. If he’d mistimed it, the referee would have had an easy decision to make in sending the Israeli off.
There were a couple of half chances for Celtic over the following 10 minutes but nothing of real note. A minute before half time, a Stokes corner came to Samaras’ feet, who played the ball back to Stokes. The Irishman took a clever touch past Denswil who, fouled Stokes inside the penalty area, and the referee gave a penalty.
Debate ensued between players of both sides and the referee over the placing of the ball on the spot, with Poulsen and Veltmen booked for Ajax and van Dijk shown a card for Celtic. With normal penalty taker Kris Commons in the stands after sustaining an injury against Hibs, 22 year-old James Forrest stepped up and dispatched the spot kick expertly past Cillessen’s fingertips.
The second half started without much action other than a clearly confident James Forrest terrorizing the Ajax defense. On the 53rd minutes, Serero played a clever one-two with Sigthórsson just outside the box and came one-on-one with Forster. The goalkeeper did brilliantly to keep the ball out but there’s no doubt that Serero should have done better, leading to a Celtic counter-attack and a blocked Samaras shot that fell to Beram Kayal 25 yards out. The midfielder side-footed the ball towards the goal, what looked like an easy save for Cillessen was deflected off of Denswil’s right boot and into the left-hand corner of the net.
Over the next half hour, Ajax found Celtic’s line to be impenetrable and had to resort to long-range efforts. Two minutes before the final whistle, Celtic substitute Nir Biton slid in high on Serero and the referee didn’t hesitate in showing the 21 year-old a red card. It was a dangerous, needless tackle, and a sending off was probably the right call.
From then on, Ajax piled on the pressure and in the fourth minute of added time got their reward as a long-range shot from Lasse Schöne sailed into the top corner. It proved to only be a consolation, and as soon as Celtic took the kick-off the referee blew for full time. A stretched Celtic squad were rewarded for a fine display with a deserved three points.
Written by Sean Currie