A trou­bling re­flec­tion, but de Boer plans to mir­ror his past suc­cess. . .


AJAX and Celtic’s tum­ble from grace on the Euro­pean stage has been done in tan­dem. Both for­mer win­ners of the cup with the big ears – Ajax an im­pres­sive four times – it was on Cham­pi­ons League duty just two years ago that th­ese teams last crossed swords at Celtic Park. Part of a group that also in­cluded AC Milan and Barcelona, those were heady times in­deed.

There is rather less glam­our in the air ahead of this evening’s re­union. Hav­ing both failed to qual­ify for the Cham­pi­ons League, nei­ther of th­ese one-time be­he­moths has cov­ered them­selves in glory in the group phase of the Europa League. Nei­ther has a vic­tory to their credit go­ing into the penul­ti­mate round hav­ing been out­shone so far by the pre­vi­ously un­fan­cied Molde who, as a quick glance of the record books will con­firm, have never won the Euro­pean Cup in any of its guises.

The quest to join the Nor­we­gians in the last 32 of a com­pe­ti­tion nei­ther Ajax nor Celtic wanted to be in in the first place has be­come a bit of an un­seemly busi­ness. De­feat here for the Dutch would mean man­ager Frank de Boer fail­ing to keep his team in Europe be­yond Christ­mas for the first time in his five-year man­age­rial ten­ure, and it is not some­thing he wishes on his record.

“That would be very dis­ap­point­ing,” said the for­mer de­fender who had a brief and largely in­aus­pi­cious spell at Rangers a decade ago. “It won’t be a black mark on my ca­reer if we don’t make it through but I won’t feel good about it.

“In the Cham­pi­ons League group stage, three out of the four teams get out of the group. And now only two go through in the Europa League. It’s also amaz­ing that Molde have qual­i­fied as when the draw was made we were think­ing about Fener­bahce and Celtic if you look at UEFA rank­ing. And now Molde have gone through.”

The sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two teams also ex­tends to the num­ber of mid­field play­ers likely to be un­avail­able to them tonight.

Celtic will be with­out Scott Brown, Kris Com­mons, Ste­fan Jo­hansen and Nir Bitton. Ajax will need to do with­out teenage tal­ent Riechedly Ba­zoer, a player on the radar of both Manch­ester City and Barcelona, Da­ley Sinkgraven, Thu­lani Serero and An­war El Ghazi. Which man­ager has the greater ver­sa­til­ity in the squad will be­come clear when the teams are an­nounced.

“We are in the same sit­u­a­tion as Celtic, al­though maybe they are a lit­tle bit worse,” added de Boer. “We still have two mid­field­ers who have played for most of this sea­son but we will be with­out Sinkgraven and Ba­zoer, who have also fea­tured reg­u­larly. They are un­avail­able tomorrow night but Celtic’s en­tire mid­field is un­avail­able due to in­jury and sus­pen­sion.

“It’s a big blow for them, es­pe­cially with Scott Brown be­ing out for eight weeks or so. That’s very dis­ap­point­ing for them but they have a strong squad and I’m sure they will have re­place­ments.”

Cil­lessen; Tete, Velt­man, Riede­wald, Di­jks; Schone, Klassen, Gudelj; Fis­cher, Mi­lik, Younes

Pic­ture: SNS

BLEM­ISH: Ajax man­ager Frank de Boer has never failed to keep Ajax in Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion be­yond Christ­mas in his five years in charge of the club.

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