BACK IN 1970, one of the most captivating games of an outstanding World Cup, Italy’s 4-3 win over West Germany, was so exciting that the final whistle left you disappointed that the match had ended after 120 pulsating minutes. The same feeling was evident at Stamford Bridge when Chelsea and Ajax shared eight goals on an evening that reminded the near-40,000 crowd that the UEFA Champions League, for all its faults, is compelling stuff.
Here you had two teams that are currently among the media’s favourites: Chelsea because, after 16 years of sending-out teams of expensively assembled hired hands, have been forced to field the young talent that would normally have found its way to Vitesse Arnhem, Wigan Athletic or Leeds United and Ajax, because they have produced another batch of youngsters that are already gracing the finely-manicured stadiums of Europe. For Chelsea, it’s an unusual scenario – they’re not used to being even remotely appreciated by the laptop bashers.
But they had to overcome a good hour of Ajax running the show according to the spirit of Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit and Rinus Michels, intelligent movement, slide-rule passing (I had to explain what a slide rule was to someone) and calm and rapier-like finishing. Chelsea, with a four-man back line, looked dreadful and jaded in the first half, out-thought and naïve. Ajax made Kepa look like a £75 goalkeeper, rather than the world’s most expensive custodian. No wonder Frank Lampard, speaking after the game, admitted that his team had demonstrated their sloppy side.
With Chelsea fielding Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fiyako Tomori, with Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi also involved, the club’s European experience was not as deep as their line-ups of the recent past. It’s not always appreciated, but since 2003-04, when Abramovich rolled into town, Chelsea have won as many European prizes as Manchester United and more than Liverpool. Furthermore, in a record that goes back to the early years of pan-European competition, Chelsea have lost just nine home games. “No history” claim the fans of clubs that have been threatened by the disruption caused by Chelsea’s elevation over the past decade and a half. Now, they all want the impetus provided by billionaire owners and the club no longer has exclusive rights to wealth, they were merely one of the forerunners.
Surprisingly, this was the first time that four-times European champions Ajax had visited Stamford Bridge. But the team came alone as their supporters were not [officially] allowed at the game. A pity, for it made for a very flat atmosphere in the first half, especially as Ajax silenced the crowd as early as the first minute thanks to Abraham’s unfortunate own goal that came from a dangerous free kick from the impressive Quincy Promes.
Chelsea equalised almost straight away with a Jorginho penalty, but it was only temporary respite, for Ajax continued to look in command and in the 19th minute, a free kick from Hakim Ziyech was allowed to find Promes, who Martin Peters-like, crept in at the far post and nodded past the hapless Kepa. Questions had to be asked about the defence once more. More silence as Ajax celebrated.
It got worse in the 35th minute, Ziyech – what a marvellous player this fellow is – swung in a free kick, it struck the bar and Kepa back-headed it into his own net. He had little chance. Ziyech stood and shrugged his shoulders as if to suggest he did this sort of thing in his sleep.
Doubtless, Lampard told his team not to concede again but in the 55th minute, Donny van de Beek calmly added a fourth Ajax goal. Game over?
Something changed and it wasn’t just that Chelsea just went hell for leather, Ajax suffered two red cards, for Daley Blind and Joël Veltman. Before the confusing and not fully explainable incident that led to the duo’s dismissal, César Azpilicueta had pulled one back for Chelsea. Then came the second penalty from Jorginhho that meant Lampard’s resurgent side were only one goal behind. In the 74th minute, they equalised, Abraham’s header striking the bar and substitute James following up to score. By now, Stamford Bridge was a cacophony of sound and mayhem. If there was going to be a winner, it was surely going to be Chelsea.
They thought they had produced the ultimate comeback when Azpilicueta put the ball in the net again, but VAR, that enemy of spontaneity, ruled the “goal” out. Ajax settled into a nine-man routine and continued to push forward – there was not a Dutch omnibus in sight. Both teams had to settle for a draw, but that was just about right – Ajax deserved something for their first half brilliance, Chelsea for their rediscovery of British “pluck” in coming back from the dead.
For once, the club that has epitomised the modern, global game did have something resembling the spirit of English footballers with bandaged foreheads and fist-clenched determination. As for the fans, all the Chelsea faithful could offer was a “wish you were here” postcard for their counterparts in Amsterdam. They had been royally entertained, if only their partisanship would allow them to admit it. They were still bemoaning the fact they hadn’t won 5-4 (“bloody VAR”) as they queued for the underground trains at Fulham Broadway.
They still talk about that Italy v West Germany game in Mexico City, they still remember great comebacks at Chelsea, such as the 1971 4-0 win against Bruges that overturned a two-goal first leg defeat or the 1978 4-3 win against Bolton after being 0-3 down. It’s highly likely that Chelsea 4 Ajax 4 will live on for some time. Amid the chaos, there was genuine quality on display.