The sheer intensity of Celtic could not be contained. Ajax were capable of precision and quick, cutting interchanges, but they could not stand firm against a team that was adamant that victory would belong to them. If the general play was mostly evenly balanced, the forceful incidents all belonged to Celtic.
Ajax will have left Glasgow last night still dazed by the occasion and all of its devastating moments. Neil Lennon’s side tends to feel charged by these European nights at Celtic Park, and that energy was enough to provide the edge over Ajax. The Dutch were composed in all but the most crucial area, since the inadequacy of their defending was critical.
This was two teams that understood the contest was as much about elimination as glory. The loser, even with three Group H fixtures remaining, would concede that their hopes of qualifying would be remote. They carried their flaws into the game. Ajax have not won an away game all season, while Celtic had not scored in either of their previous Champions League encounters.
The home side, too, were missing their captain, Scott Brown, who provides their midfield drive, and Kris Commons, who is at the heart of their creative impulses. Nonetheless, there was no sense of inhibition; not at Celtic Park, where the faint-hearted tend to be overcome by the raucous noise of the home crowd.
A contrast was quickly evident. Where Ajax sought to be controlled in their play, Celtic were relying on swamping their opponents, of surging beyond a defence that has conceded a slew of goals this season and contained at centre-back Joel Veltman, a 21-year-old making his European debut, and Stefano Denswil, a 20-year-old.
Hesitancy was evident amongst the Ajax backline when Mikael Lustig crossed for Teemu Pukki, but the Finnish striker could not apply a strong enough touch on the ball. The visitors were more assured going forward, with some of their one-touch passing, and the angles of their movement, sharp enough to leave Celtic’s defence looking static. This included at set-pieces and Christian Poulsen’s volley struck the post from Viktor Fischer’s free-kick.
For all the crispness of their passing, Ajax could not contain the peril of their inexperience. As half-time approached, Denswil rashly tripped Anthony Stokes inside the penalty area. James Forrest finished powerfully and accurately from the spot.
The interval was a respite from the rush of blood that the game experienced, but there was no lasting escape for Denswil. When the ball broke to Beram Kayal at the edge of the area soon after the restart, his shot deflected into the net off the Ajax defender. The play was hectic by then, with Thulani Serero scorning a chance to equalise just before the goal, only for Fraser Forster to deny him. The only regret for Celtic was Nir Biton being sent off two minutes from the end, for a dangerous challenge on Serero. Then the substitute Lasse Schöne struck a late consolation for Ajax from 20 yards out.