Europa League: Ajax youth have potential to trouble Celtic

By Liam McLeodBBC Scotland
Ajax forward Arkadiusz Milik
Arkadiusz Milik is one of Ajax's main goal threats
Europa League: Ajax v Celtic
Date: Thursday, 17 September Venue: Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam Kick-off: 18:00 BST
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland 810MW/DAB; live text commentary on BBC Sport website

The importance of the Europa League varies from club-to-club.

For some, it is a nuisance. A hindrance to a league campaign and in many cases, to clubs who don't even come close to winning their national titles.

To suggest that Celtic and their opening Group A foes Ajax would rather be in the altogether more glamorous Champions League states the obvious.

However, the coaches at both teams have had a summer of discontent in that regard and will pin huge importance on performing on what they hope will be the road to next year's final in Basle.

Champions League woes

While Celtic were sneaking past Azerbaijanis Qarabag, their Dutch opponents - still bossed by former Rangers and Barcelona defender Frank De Boer - were sheepishly exiting the qualifiers of a tournament they regularly bossed in the 1970s and threatened to do so again in the 90s.

That they had to negotiate the minefield of pre-tournament Russian Roulette - something Celtic are now well versed in - owes more to PSV Eindhoven's brilliant, free-scoring romp to the Eredivisie title than too many failings of their own.

Europa League Group A
Fenerbahce v Molde, Ajax v Celtic (17 Sep)Celtic v Fenerbahce, Molde v Ajax (1 Oct)
Molde v Celtic, Fenerbahce v Ajax (22 Oct)Celtic v Molde, Ajax v Fenerbahce (5 Nov)
Molde v Fenerbahce, Celtic v Ajax (26 Nov)Fenerbahce v Celtic, Ajax v Molde ( 10 Dec)

De Boer's former international and Barca colleague Philip Cocu's PSV spectacularly dethroned the Amsterdam side after a four-year-reign of Dutch football, with Ajax finishing 18 points adrift, albeit on the same tally that granted them four-in-a-row the season before.

It was a painful wake-up call for 'de Godenzonen' (Sons of the Gods). And the setbacks would not end with their Eredivisie usurping.

With only the Dutch champions entering the group stage of the Champions League, Ajax had to go back to basics and came out flailing in a fashion similar to Celtic in the subsequent round against Malmo.

A normally miserly defence bled five goals over two legs against the Austrian runners-up Rapid Vienna with a 3-2 loss in Amsterdam ending all thoughts of a sixth group stage campaign in Europe's premier competition.

De Boer had to fend off media criticism in the wake of that with some saying his team was too young for the job.

Mikael Lustig and Thulani Serero
Celtic lost 1-0 on their last visit to the Amsterdam ArenA

The average age of the side that went out that early-August night was 21 with the likes of the more experienced new signing and returnee Johnny Heitinga, fellow defender Ricardo Van Rhijn and Danish international Lasse Schone - who scored the winner when Celtic lost 1-0 in the Amsterdam ArenA in 2013 - all among the substitutes.

And while De Boer acknowledged it didn't work against Rapid, he has generally stuck to his guns since then.

Indeed, practically the same youthful team took care of Czech side Jablonec in the Europa League play-off.

'De Godenzonen' squad

Spearheading their attack is 21-year-old Poland international Arkadiusz Milik, who has starred in Scotland's Euro 2016 group and who scored the equaliser against Gordon Strachan's men in Warsaw last October.

It was Milik's penalty that narrowly ousted Jablonec following his permanent arrival from Bayer Leverkusen, who had initially loaned him to Ajax.

But Milik is just one problem for Ronny Deila's nervy new-look rearguard with Netherlands Under-21 international Anwar El Ghazi - the club's talent of the year last season - drawing admiring glances from afar.

Deila spent some time at the Ajax Academy during his spell in charge of Stromsgodset and there is usually a healthy number of graduates making their name for the domestically unbeaten Dutch giants.

Eighteen-year-old midfielder Riecheldy Bazoer and Daley Sinkgraven, 20, along with fellow winger El Ghazi have grasped their chance and are regular picks for De Boer.

Davy Klaassen of Ajax applaudes the fans
Davy Klaassen offers an attacking threat from midfield for the Dutch side

Keeping World Cup runner-up Heitinga in the wings is centre-half Jairo Reidewald, who made his international debut at left-back in the Netherlands' 3-0 reverse against Turkey in a recent Euro 2016 qualifier.

And whilst goalkeeper Jasper Cillesen has been leaking goals with the national team, Saturday's 2-2 draw at FC Twente marked their first domestic concessions of the season.

They - and fellow Dutch European representatives Groningen and PSV - are under pressure to deliver this season, with the Uefa member association co-efficient threatening to deliver a body blow next summer.

Ajax - in the Champions League - Twente, PSV and AZ Alkmaar performed well in the 2011-12 season on the continent but that campaign is about to drop off the country's ranking with four average years following.

Turkey, Switzerland and the Czech Republic are breathing down their necks with regards automatic qualification spots, places Scottish teams can only dream of these days.

Unlike Celtic, Ajax have hit form despite dropping points last time out as they hit back from 2-0 behind.

And despite not possessing big names like recently departed stars Daley Blind, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen, the most successful club and now one of the youngest teams in the country, have potential to hand Deila yet another headache.

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