Celtic yet again managed to shoot themselves in the foot this season after surrendering the lead twice against Ajax to earn their first point in the Europa League campaign. On the same night that saw fellow group challengers Fenerbache lose 3-1 at home to Molde in their opening game, Celtic will have been annoyed to have not taken full advantage in the Europa League group. But amidst this obvious disappointment, far more positives should be took from an impressive display in Holland.
Ajax 2-2 Celtic
Before the match it would be fair to say that just about every Celtic fan would have taken a point away from home to one of the strongest teams in the competition. Had Emilio Izaguirre not got a questionable second yellow card, it’s arguable that the Celts would have held on for a brilliant three points to kick start their campaign. But, following the dismissal, Celtic conceded from a set piece which was painful to watch to say the least.
It really was an impressive performance from the team: the attacking four of James Forrest, Stefan Johansen, Kris Commons and Leigh Griffiths all having lively games. Commons was excellent for the first goal and it’s easy to see that there’s goals from all over the pitch- as seen with Nir Biton and Mikael Lustig’s finishing last night. But the deep lying problem is the defence. Virgil van Dijk’s departure to Southampton has left a gap to fill, and the £5.5 million signing of Jozo Šimunović – who made a solid enough debut against Ajax- looks like a way to fill this very gap. The defensive fragilities, though, were there even with van Dijk- suggesting there’s more work to be done.
So why is it that Celtic’s defence seems to get exposed in Europe? Is it Ronny Deila’s stubbornness to sticking with zonal marking from set pieces? Is it because of the lack of competition in their domestic league? Well, the answer really isn’t all that clear. Ajax’s second goal came from a set piece where the zonal marking took place, perhaps showing the need for a change in thinking from the boss. But Lustig’s goal came from Ajax’s use of man-marking, showing how both systems aren’t to be fully relied on. It’s obvious since Rangers’ departure from the league Celtic haven’t had much competition to deal with in Scotland. This maybe shows how the defence aren’t really prepared much for the harder games in Europe.
At left back it’s an ever-changing guess to who is the better left back between Izaguirre and Charlie Mulgrew. Although the loan signing of Tyler Blackett gives competition, this is a very vulnerable space. Lustig is a solid right back but is prone to injuries, leaving Saidy Janko as the only replacement. Despite his visible efforts, Efe Ambrose – who did put in a good 20 minutes against Ajax – simply isn’t good enough to play at this level. Dedryck Boyata and Šimunović need to form a good partnership if Celtic are to go anywhere in the Europa League, and glimpses of this were shown last night.
With the transfer window shut now, there’s not much Deila can do other than to make sure the work is put in the training ground from now until January. Another thing to point out is how little Celtic are spending on replacements compared to that of other teams around Europe. Seemingly selling their best players for good profit, but arguably at little prices, Celtic don’t have the pulling power anymore to bring in world class defenders. In some ways, it’s as if the Scottish League is strangling a big club to death- but that’s just the way it is. More investment, though, needs to be made in defenders- last night’s errors should nail this message home.
Celtic still look wounded from that late goal Jo Inge Berget got at Celtic Park to give Malmo another away goal back in August. Although this didn’t necessarily mean Celtic were out of the Champions League, since that goal (another set piece), it really has been downhill for Deila’s team. Slipping form in the SPFL has made many fans turn on his back, which is hardly fair so early on in the season and after last season’s showings. The team did look very good last night and fans must realise too that Ajax sit top of the Eredivisie- regarded as one of the stronger leagues in Europe. To get a point there should breed confidence into the team.
The league table right now isn’t good viewing; sitting five points behind leaders Aberdeen. Added to the fact that Aberdeen have already proven they can beat the champions – with ten men, no less – it does show that Celtic will have a good title challenge; which many argue is what’s needed for them. But following the Ajax draw it really should act as a turning point in the Bhoys’ slow start to the season.