Youthful Ajax held by 10-men Celtic in thrilling Amsterdam encounter
Scottish champions Celtic held Eredivisie leaders Ajax to a 2-2 Europa League draw at the Amsterdam ArenA, despite having full back Emilio Izaguirre sent off in the second-half, as Lasse Schone’s late free-kick secured a share of the spoils.
The Hoops had twice taken the lead through Nir Bitton’s powerful first-half strike and defender Mikael Lustig later put them in front again, after Viktor Fischer rounded off a superb team move.
In front of rapturous travelling fans, Celtic looked to gain some European redemption in the Netherlands against an Ajax side that came into the clash on home soil unbeaten domestically so far this season.
In charge of the hosts was a former Rangers player, only adding to the intensity surrounding this encounter, and Frank de Boer named one of the youngest ever Ajax sides in history; an incredible feat for a club that is widely regarded for its successful youth production line.
The Dutch side have seen stars such as Johan Cruyff and Dennis Bergkamp come through their nurturing ranks, but Anwar El Ghazi is the latest youngster hailed as a potential superstar and the tricky winger started brightly on the right flank.
Ajax’s Netherlands Under-21 international was the target of early deep passes from midfield, as the hosts tried to unleash the wideman one-on-one with Bhoys full back Izaguirre.
After just seven minutes it was the travelling fans who erupted after Hoops midfielder Bitton burst forward on the right to drill home the opener, after a perfectly-weighted lay-off from Kris Commons.
Jozo Simunovic made his debut for the visitors after a £5.5m switch this summer, replacing recently departed Virgil van Dijk at the heart of defence and he almost endured an early calamitous moment when his block on Davy Klaassen’s shot was inches from hitting his own net.
Deila’s Bhoys continued their early approach of sitting back and soaking up the pressure from Ajax as the first-half progressed, but it was a dangerous ploy as El Ghazi crept past Izaguirre and saw his effort stopped by a wall of Bhoys bodies.
On the opposite flank to El Ghazi, Amin Younes was a constant danger, as he cut in from the left after 25 minutes to find his captain Klaassen, who beautifully back-heeled into the path of Fischer, with the Denmark forward clinically finishing off a great team goal.
Much was made of the visitors’ weakness from set-pieces, having recently conceded aerially from Malmo and Aberdeen but, only moments before the break, Lustig headed home a lofted Griffiths corner to make sure they finished the first period in front.
James Forrest looked like being the Hoops’ most likely goal threat in the first-half and he continued to threaten in the second, with his sequence of two successive shots from close range being thwarted by the Ajax defence.
After being impressively beaten in the opening 45 minutes, Scottish stopper Craig Gordon enjoyed a relatively quiet following half, with Celtic’s deep-lying side dealing with any attacks.
Poland international frontman Arkadiusz Milik was introduced by De Boer after the hour mark to try and revitalise the Ajax strikeforce, but he was unable to force a breakthrough.
Lustig was replaced by Efe Ambrose in the closing stages after suffering from cramp, and the 28-year-old Sweden international was applauded off Dutch soil.
If the Hoops’ task wasn’t already tough enough, they were reduced to 10 men after Izaguirre picked up a second caution for a clumsy tackle on his constant tormentor El Ghazi, though the winger did theatrically go down before red was produced.
The dismissal proved to be vital as momentum swung in Ajax’s favour, and Celtic again suffered misery from a set-piece as substitute Schone saw his whipped delivery go all the way past a flat-footed defence and goalkeeper to equalise.
On a night Celtic came close to gaining a potentially momentous victory on Dutch soil, Deila will be pleased to have survived a late scare and come away with a point in this Group A meeting.