Chelsea and Ajax drew 4-4 at Stamford Bridge in a spellbinding group H Champions League tie. With 20 minutes left the Dutch side were cruising to victory with a three goal lead. Then in a remarkable passage of play, Erik Ten Hag’s team went down to nine men and conceded a penalty.
The match had almost everything. Two own goals, two penalties, two red cards and a rousing finish. Frank Lampard’s team still have work to do to qualify for the knockout rounds after Valencia’s victory over Lille and the Chelsea manager will regret his team did not push home their advantage.
Things could not have got off to a quicker start. Ajax showed their intentions immediately and took the game to the home side. The early pressure forced a free kick on the left and Quincy Promes curled a straightforward ball into the near post. It was the sort of effort a defender would expect to clear easily but Tammy Abraham waved a leg at the ball and got the faintest of touches. Ajax were in front after two minutes but were given no time to build in their lead.
It took Chelsea just three minutes to draw level. Christian Pulisic picked up the ball in a central area and drove towards the heart of the defence. The American caused panic in the defence. Joel Veltman slid in and upended the winger in the box. It was clearly a penalty and Jorginho dispatched the spot-kick with ease.
Both sides were keen to be positive and the game was wide open. Abraham thought he had made amends when he ran on to a Mateo Kovacic through ball but the striker had edged offside. At the other end Hakim Ziyech curled a long-range shot wide.
Ajax are quick, technically excellent and precise in their passing. They probed around the edge of the Chelsea box and although the home side got back in numbers, the Dutch team were finding space. After 20 minutes David Neres worked the ball back to Ziyech on the right byline and the 26-year-old swung in a delectable cross that curled behind the defensive line. Promes was lurking at the back post and darted in to send a header past Kepa Arrizabalaga. The sharpness of Ajax’s passing was confounding the home side’s press.
Abraham almost added a second own goal when he flicked an angled free kick just wide of Kepa’s post and Chelsea were struggling to get a foothold in the game.
Ziyech was the dominant presence in the first 70 minutes. The Dutch-Moroccan has a pinpoint left foot and is one of the best crossers in the sport. Conceding any sort of set-piece has dangerous consequences when he is around. The midfielder teed up a free kick out on the line, close to the corner flag and curled in an exquisite effort that hit the far post and rebounded into the net off Kepa’s face. Ziyech turned, looked the crowd in the eyes and preened. You could question the goalkeeper’s positioning but not the Ajax man’s brilliance.
Kurt Zouma opened the second half by dribbling the length of the pitch and shooting over from the edge of the opposition box. It roused the crowd, who had been naturally a little flat. Taking Zouma’s lead, Chelsea stormed forwards and Pulisic hit the byline and crossed into an empty area. Reece James, on at the break for Marcos Alonso, finally picked up the ball and sent in a second cross but Daley Blind cleared. Abraham then broke free and forced a save from Andre Onana.
Chelsea were vulnerable on the break, though. Ajax looked like they put the game out of sight after 55 minutes and Ziyech was involved again. This time he picked out Donny van de Beek, who was unmarked in the area and the Dutchman stroked the ball into the net. It seemed too easy for the visiting side.
Cesar Azpilicueta gave Chelsea a lifeline, making it 4-2 after 63 minutes but no one could have imagined the drama that would unfold.
Then things took a wild turn after 71 minutes. Chelsea, with nothing to lose, surged forward. Blind, already on a yellow, barged over Abraham but Gianluca Rocchi, the Italian referee, allowed the advantage. Callum Hudson-Odoi shot and Veltman tried to tuck his elbows behind but the ball struck the defender on the arm. The official went back, gave Blind a second yellow card, and then awarded a penalty. An enraged Veltman was given a second booking for for dissent and followed Blind to the dressing room. Jorginho pulled the deficit back to a single goal and the Bridge was rocking.
Against nine men it was all Chelsea. Three minutes later Zouma headed a corner against the bar and the ball rebounded to James. The 19-year-old did not panic and drilled the equaliser through a crowded area.
Cesar Azpilicueta thought he put the home side in front but VAR showed that the ball hit Abraham’s hand in the previous scramble. Both sides had chances in a wild finish – Hudson-Odoi curled a shot wide and Michy Batshuayi spun and shot at the goalkeeper. It was a breathless finish to a crazy game.
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