Celtic go through despite Ajax slip

Celtic 0 Ajax 1 Celtic win 3-2 on aggregate
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The Independent Football

Rarely has a defeat ever earned such a rousing ovation from Parkhead, but last night was the exception. Celtic clung onto their Champions' League prize in spite of a fierce comeback by Ajax to go into the draw for the lucrative first group stage for the first time.

A first-half goal from Wamberto drenched the place in anxiety, as Martin O'Neill's team were forced to undergo the sort of punishing scrutiny from the Dutch side that they themselves dished out in Amsterdam two weeks ago.

That emphatic 3-1 victory meant that, for once, Celtic were in the unusual position of not having to chase goals to retrieve the tie, though, had Henrik Larsson buried his header from Steve Guppy's cross after just three minutes instead of letting it stray over the bar, the contest would have been over.

Ajax's pride had been hurt by the first-leg mauling. Though coach Co Adriaanse declared that his young side had been made to look like boys by Celtic's physical prowess, there was little evidence here as Andre Bergdolmo manhandled Chris Sutton at every turn while Abuhakari Yakubu was booked after 16 minutes for brutally slicing down Larsson.

However, the pace of Wamberto hinted that Ajax had come to Glasgow intent on doing some legitimate damage. The Brazilian winger prised the Celtic defence open after 21 minutes with a chip which broke fortuitously into his path off Joos Valgaeren, Robert Douglas only just scrambling his snap shot round the far post.

Celtic did not heed the warning, though. Just nine minutes later, Wamberto had Ajax breathing uncomfortably down their neck when he reduced the aggregate deficit.

Again speed was the key, though the deft back-heel from Shota Arveladze provided the one-two from which Wamberto profited. He left Valgaeren for dead and skipped into the box before lashing a right-foot shot past Douglas.

Rafael van der Vaart became another Ajax caution just before half-time for an ugly lunge on Paul Lambert and when Celtic's players re-emerged from their dressing-room encounter with Martin O'Neill there was at least a clear sense of purpose to match Ajax in combat.

The effort saw the Dutch side confronted by a more severe pressing game. However, the threat of another Ajax goal was not lifted. Arveladze's pace allowed him to steal in behind Johan Mjallby, but, not for the first time, Tom Boyd rescued the situation with an effective intervention.

With more than an hour gone, and barely a threat to Fred Grim's goal, Parkhead was paralysed by fear. Things were not going to script. Anxious Celtic fans hoped that the arrival of the skilful Lubomir Moravcik with 19 minutes left would change all that. Yet this was not the kind of encounter which was overflowing with grace, as an ugly exchange between Christian Chivu and Larsson illustrated.

Celtic (3-5-2): Douglas; Mjallby, Boyd, Valgaeren; Agathe, McNamara (Moravcik, 71), Lambert, Lennon, Guppy; Sutton, Larsson. Substitutes not used: Kharin (gk), Sylla, Tébily, Petrov, Crainey.

Ajax (3-4-3): Grim; Vierklau (Knopper, 71), Bergdolmo (Hossan, 77), Chivu; Trabelsi, Wamberto, Yakubu, Van der Vaart, Scherrer; Machlas (Ibrahimovic, 65), Arveladze. Substitutes not used: Stekelenburg (gk), Heitinga, Pienaar.

Referee: S Braschi (Italy).