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
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.