Jury out on Deila after yet another night of European failure for Celtic
Questions sure to be asked of manager after latest setback
IT is hard to say with any great certainty what the implications of a defeat which ended Celtic’s hopes of progressing to the knockout rounds of the Europa League for the second season running will be for Ronny Deila.
On the face of it, a 2-1 loss at home to Ajax continued the Scottish champions’ disappointing run in Europe – they have failed to win any of their five Group A matches to date and are languishing in bottom place in their section.
Given their costly failure to reach the group stages of the Champions League once again earlier in the season, the reverse should really increase the pressure on Deila as manager. Many will certainly call for his services to be dispensed with and a replacement found in time for the next campaign.
Yet, a Celtic side which was shorn of important personnel played well in difficult circumstances, took the lead and, with a bit more quality up front, could quite easily have snatched the goal which would have kept their campaign alive.
The hosts were every bit as impressive as their adversaries who lead the Eredivisie over the course of an entertaining 90 minutes at a packed Parkhead. The dejection and disbelief of their drained players at the final whistle was obvious.
A Vaclav Cerny goal for Ajax with just over two minutes remaining, as Celtic were pushing for the strike which would keep their prospects of reaching the last 32 alive and were stretched at the back, killed them off. It was a cruel denouement. But it is a harsh game. Whether their manager will survive is debatable.
Deila had been dealt a huge blow in the build-up to the fixture this week when Scott Brown, his inspirational captain and first choice central midfielder, was ruled out with ligament damage for up to three months. Kris Commons, too, was absent.
Nir Bitton and Stefan Johansen were suspended having been sent off and booked respectively in the loss to Molde three weeks earlier. It was, then, an unfamiliar looking Celtic team which took to the field in the East End of Glasgow at just after eight o’clock last night.
Kieran Tierney – the 18-year-old left-back who has made such an impression during his first team appearances this term and who was, by some distance, his side’s best performer against Molde – started ahead of Emilio Izaguirre.
Callum McGregor, who had last started a game against Raith Rovers in the League Cup over two months ago, and Stuart Armstrong, who normally features in a wider role, were named as the central midfielders in a 4-1-4-1 formation. James Forrest and Gary Mackay-Steven lined up outside them on the right and left wings respectively
Despite normally playing just off lone striker, where he can cause opposition backlines serious harm with his creativity on the ball and eye for goal, Rogic started as the holding midfielder. The Australian internationalist performed admirably there, but moved upfield as the game progressed.
On the plus side, Jozo Simunovic was fit and took up his place alongside Dedryck Boyata in the centre of the defence. Efe Ambrose and Tyler Blackett had performed poorly there against Fenerbahce and Molde at home so his availability was welcome to his manager and his side.
Celtic got off to the perfect start with a goal in the fourth minute which involved three of the players drafted into the side due to injury and suspen- sion. Armstrong fed Mackay-Steven in the visitors’ half and he in turn supplied McGregor. With the eyes of everyone inside the stadium upon him, the 22-year-old showed admirable composure to retain possession, cut inside Mike van der Hoorn and then curl an exquisite shot beyond the fully outstretched Jasper Cillessen.
McGregor’s strike sent the Celtic supporters in the crowd wild. But it was practically all they had to cheer about, some resolute defending aside, in the opening 45 minutes of the match. They posed less of a threat as the game wore on. Ajax equalised with a scrappy goal after 22 minutes. Craig Gordon did well to parry a Viktor Fishcher shot from an acute angle. However, the ball fell to the feet of his opponent who promptly squared it to Arkadiusz Millik and his team mate hooked it into the net.
Celtic appeared comfortable with the change of system – they usually play with a 4-2-3-1 set-up – and enjoyed their share of possession in the first half. But they failed to make good use of their pressure. Their final ball often left much to be desired.
Leigh Griffiths shot straight at Cillessen from outside the box, struck the side netting and harassed Jairo Riedewald and Van der Hoorn whenever they received the ball. Could, though, the striker have caused more damage if he had been more conscious of those around him?
Incisive play in the final third is required to win games at this level in Europe and too much of Celtic’s efforts in that area were scrappy. Deila put on Charlie Mulgrew for Rogic, Scott Allan for Gary Mackay-Steven and Izaguirre for Tierney in the second half. The first two replacements made an immediate difference. Allan’s perfectly weighted through ball sent Griffiths clear in the 73rd minute. By that stage, the forward, who had put in tireless shift in attack by himself, looked exhausted and shot tamely at Cillessen.
Fernando Ricksen, the former Rangers player who is suffering from motor neurone disease, was the guest of Celtic at the game. It was a fine gesture and a reminder that sporting rivalries and the outcomes of football matches are utterly trivial in comparison with many things in life.
DEJECTION: Charlie Mulgrew, Stuart Armstrong and Scott Allan cut a disconsolate bunch.
FLYING START: Callum McGregor sent Celtic into an early lead but it was to prove a false dawn.