The Ajax Paradox

Paradox: noun – a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.

The current Group H standings

The current Group H standings

Tuesday night is a crucial night for Celtic in the Champions League. They host a stuttering AC Milan side, while Ajax take on Barcelona in Amsterdam. If Celtic win and Ajax don’t, Neil Lennon’s side will move into 2nd place in the group.

So far so simple. But what if I was to tell you that, if Celtic win, they would actually want Ajax to draw rather than lose against Barcelona? It sounds daft, but it’s actually true.

Let’s examine the possibilities. A Celtic win on Tuesday is eminently possible, but it seems unlikely they’ll manage the 3 goal win they’d need to lead AC Milan on head-to head.  In 46 previous Champions League group stage matches, Celtic have only once won by such a margin (v Benfica in 2006). So let’s assume that Celtic record a nice simple one goal win.

And now let’s consider those two possible outcomes of the Ajax game. Scenario A is based on Ajax LOSING to Barcelona. Scenario B is based on Ajax DRAWING with Barcelona.

Scenario A: Celtic win and Ajax lose

Scenario A: Celtic win and Ajax lose.

Scenario B - Celtic win and Ajax draw.

Scenario B – Celtic win and Ajax draw.

In the final game, Celtic are away to Barcelona, while AC Milan host Ajax. Even the most confident of Celtic fans would struggle to predict anything other than a defeat in the Nou Camp, so let’s examine the outcomes based on a Celtic defeat.

In Scenario A, it is impossible for Celtic to qualify if they lose to Barcelona. If either AC Milan or Ajax win, they will leapfrog Celtic in the group. If the match finishes as a draw, AC Milan would pip Celtic on the head-to-head.

The potential three-way head-to-head table.

The potential three-way head-to-head table.

However, in Scenario B, Celtic do still have a chance if they lose. An Ajax or AC Milan win would see Neil Lennon’s side eliminated, but a draw in Milan would see all 3 sides finish level on 6 points. In that case, it would come down to the three-way head-to-head record – ie results against Barcelona would be excluded. And Celtic would top that particular table with 6 points compared to Ajax and AC Milan’s 5.

I’m aware that I’ve made a couple of assumptions there, but actually they don’t really matter. If Celtic beat AC Milan (by any scoreline at all) there is no scenario where an Ajax defeat is any better than an Ajax draw. But as I’ve shown, there are scenarios where the draw is preferable to Celtic.

If Barcelona score on Tuesday, I’m looking forward to hearing a confused murmur make its way around Celtic Park.

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