Lennon rues 'insipid' performance as Celtic edge towards exit door
Ajax 1 Celtic 0
Celtic's confidence that they could leave Amsterdam on course for European football after Christmas proved unfounded as they produced a performance that was arguably their poorest under Neil Lennon to lose by a Lasse Schone goal scored soon after the break.
To make matters worse, AC Milan's defeat by Barcelona in the other Group H fixture was exactly what Celtic would have wanted to give them a chance of making the last 16 of the Champions League for the second season in succession.
Now, barring a miraculous recovery in the remaining games against Milan at home and away to Barcelona, Celtic can kiss goodbye to European football after Christmas.
"Very disappointing first half. Better second half and we had opportunities to score and we didn't take them. We missed some decent opportunities, particularly when James Forrest was one-on-one," Lennon said.
"We were insipid in the first half, but Ajax scored just as we were getting a foothold in the game. It makes it very, very difficult to qualify, but then again the whole thing could flip again if we beat Milan and Barcelona win here.
"There will be a few players who will have regrets as they were far from their best. We didn't work the goalkeeper enough for my liking. It's an opportunity lost, but all's not lost."
According to the Uefa website, after 10 minutes of the contest Ajax had controlled 100pc of possession and had achieved one effort on target. For all Celtic were able to do with the ball, the first statistic might as well have been correct.
The mercy visited upon them was that this callow Ajax side – average age just over 22 – were unable to take advantage of their opportunities. Fraser Forster, who is likely to win his first England cap against Germany or Chile, dived low to divert a Stefano Denswil free-kick around the base of the post, took another from the same player comfortably and also pushed a point-blank header from Siem de Jong wide.
The contrast between Forster's activity and the absence of any threat to Jasper Cillessen at the other end of the field was remarkable, as was Celtic's inability to retain the ball for anything like the length of time needed to give the defenders a breather or impose real pressure on Frank de Boer's players.
Anthony Stokes, Georgios Samaras, James Forrest Kris Commons – who missed the first meeting of these teams through injury – were unable to make any impact on the Ajax defence, although Celtic did manage to force two corners in succession as the interval approached.
Soon after the restart they forced their first outstanding opening as Ajax retreated in the face of a Beram Kayal break. As the midfielder continued to advance and the home defenders continued to back off Kayal realised that the shot was on, but he got his body shape all wrong and ballooned his effort high over.
Punishment for this profligacy was immediate and there was no flaw in Ajax's co-ordination as they assembled a delightful inter-passing move across the Celtic penalty area to spring Schone free for a simple angled finish between Forster and his far post.
Celtic produced their best passage of the game when they trailed, aided by Ajax's tendency to leave their back line thin so that they were at times left with no spare man when Lennon's players broke, but the advantage was consistently wasted because of poor decision making.
Moreover, Ajax came within a fraction of doubling their lead from a late corner when Stefano Denswil headed off the post with Forster left helpless, but by then they had done enough to thrust Celtic to the foot of Group H.
The match was marred, however, by violence beforehand which left eight police officers needing hospital treatment and 15 supporters arrested.
A spokesman for Amsterdam police said a large crowd of Celtic supporters turned on a group of plainclothes police officers in Dam Square, the city's historic heart shortly before 5.0. (© Daily Telegraph, London)