Comebacks are uplifting but confusing. Elation obscures reality. Chelsea F.c’s revival from being three goals down to Ajax in Champions League group H will be talked about for years. The 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge might have been intoxicating but Frank Lampard will have woken up this morning with a slight hangover.
For 70 minutes, Chelsea were outplayed. Ajax verged on exceptional at times. Hakim Ziyech was so superior in terms of technique, movement and passing that he made the home team look second rate. The Dutch side were well worth their three-goal lead before the game descended into glorious farce, aided by VAR. The point leaves Chelsea level with Valencia and Ajax in the group and Lampard’s team will need to be significantly more coherent and structured when they go to Spain later in the month.
Erik Ten Hag came to west London to attack. Right from the start, Ajax took the game to their hosts. Chelsea are vulnerable to crosses and the visiting team got the ball out wide and hurt the defence. The opening goal was a routine free kick from Quincy Promes that Tammy Abraham touched into his own net. It was slack defending.
The scores were level almost immediately when Christian Pulisic ran at the heart of the Ajax defence and forced Joel Veltman into bringing him down in the area. Jorginho converted the penalty but, for the ensuing 40 minutes of the first half, Chelsea barely landed a blow on their opponents.
Ziyech found space and time with ease. He curled in a magnificent cross for Promes to restore the lead and then swung in a free kick that pinballed off the far post and Kepa Arrizabalaga’s face before entering the net. Ajax’s dominance could hardly have been more comprehensive.
Lampard brought on Reece James for Marcos Alonso at half time and while the switch improved Chelsea, to see the substitution as the game-changer would be to stretch a point. The 19-year-old full back is a prodigious young talent but James’s probing runs hardly bothered Ajax. Chelsea bombed forward looking for redemption and Ziyech picked them off. The Morocco midfielder had the freedom of the Bridge when he rolled the ball into the box for Donny van de Beek to extend the lead to three goals with 35 minutes left.
In the Champions League semi-final second leg against Tottenham Hotspur in May, Ajax stormed to a two-goal lead and then switched off, allowing Spurs to win a game that should have been dead. They did the same against Chelsea. Cesar Azpilicueta made it 4-2 and instead of imposing their pattern on the game after the restart, getting on the ball and outpassing their opponents as they had done for more than an hour, the Dutch team allowed themselves to be sucked into chaos.
It turned out that Pulisic’s direct running in winning the early penalty was a template Chelsea should have been following. Ajax’s weakness is at centre back. Daley Blind’s lack of mobility was obvious during his spell at Manchester United and it is even more pronounced now. Veltman is little better and the centre back partnership self-destructed in the course of a single move in the 67th minute.
Blind, on a yellow card, fouled Abraham and the referee played the advantage. Callum Hudson-Odoi, on for the injured Mason Mount, took possession and shot. Veltman put his hands behind his back but the ball struck his arm. It was harsh to award a penalty but Gianluca Rocchi was gearing up for a proper game-changing moment. The Italian official went back and gave Blind a second yellow and in the ensuing bout of Dutch fury booked Veltman, who was already on a card. In the space of a minute, Ajax’s lead was reduced to one goal by another Jorginho spot-kick and the team were down to nine men. Few individual passages of play can have been so dramatic. Lampard talked about “characters and personalities” being the key to the comeback but Chelsea’s fortitude was less crucial than Ajax’s meltdown.
Superficially, the closing 20 minutes were all about whether the Premier League club would win the game. James calmly equalised after Kurt Zouma’s header hit the bar and fell to the full back and Azpilicueta had a winner ruled out by VAR after another very tendentious handball, this time by Abraham.
Chelsea had chances but so did the nine men of Ajax. Despite the disparity of numbers, the result could still have gone either way. When the thrills subside, Lampard will wonder why, even when his team had a two-man advantage, they never imposed their tempo on the game and remained vulnerable at the back.
When the smoke clears and the adrenaline levels decline, there are a multitude of questions for the Chelsea manager to solve. When they go to the Mestalla later this month, they cannot afford to let Valencia take the initiative. No other side is likely to implode like Ajax.
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