Chelsea v Ajax – the spectacle that nobody wanted to end

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.


Photos: PA


Great Reputations: Anderlecht mid-1970s, trusting in purple

BELGIAN teams never made much of an impact in Europe in the early years of UEFA’s club competitions, the country was largely seen as an also-ran when it came to football. Teams like Anderlecht and Antwerp sustained very heavy blows in the first European Cup tournaments, often suffering double figure aggregate defeats. But the dynamic across the continent began to change in the 1960s and by the early 1970s, Belgium had become a credible force in the game.

Standard Liège reached the semi-final of the European Cup in 1961-62, losing to Real Madrid and a year later, Anderlecht surprisingly beat the Spanish giants 4-3 on aggregate in the first round. It was not unusual for a Belgian side to have a decent run in Europe and to match that, the national team also won through to the 1970 World Cup, finishing ahead of Yugoslavia and Spain in their group. In 1970, Anderlecht from Brussels reached the final of the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup and were only narrowly beaten 4-3 by Arsenal.

Across the border, there was a new footballing movement that was gathering pace in the Netherlands which later became known as “total football”. It was only natural that this would have some influence on surrounding countries like Belgium. Teams like Anderlecht and Bruges were now renowned as difficult opponents in European competition and the national team followed-up their 1970 World Cup campaign by qualifying for the semi-finals of the 1972 European Championship, the latter stages of which they hosted.

Anderlecht, at this time, became the best supported club in Belgium, with crowds averaging over 20,000 at their Astrid Park stadium. The “purple and white” won the Belgian league in 1972 and 1974 with a team that included experienced international Paul Van Himst, Dutch winger Robbie Rensenbrink and the Hungarian Attila Ladinsky.

For Anderlecht, the period between 1974 and 1981 saw the club make its mark in Europe, playing some exciting attacking football and winning two European prizes.

In the mid-1970s, Anderlecht and Bruges, led by Austrian Ernst Happel, would fight-out the Belgian title race, but in 1976, 1977 and 1978, the team from West Flanders remained ahead, although in the last of those seasons, there was just a single point between them.

Anderlecht won the Beker van België in 1975 (beating Antwerp) and 1976 (4-0 against Lierse). In 1975-76, under new manager Hans Croon, they entered the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Croon was something of an eccentric manager and a character, but he was seen as a stop-gap until national team manager Raymond Goethals was available to join the club.

Anderlecht had the good fortune of a relatively easy run through the  competition, beating Rapid Bucharest, Yugoslavia’s Borac Banja Luka, Wrexham and East Germans BSG Sachsenring Zwickau. Anderlecht’s opponents in the final were West Ham, who had a tougher route. Croon’s side almost had home advantage, too, with the game being played at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

Anderlecht had two members of the Dutch World Cup team of 1974 in their ranks – Rensenbrink and the recently signed Arie Haan, who joined from Ajax. And there was also François Van Der Elst, a promising young winger who had alarming pace and a clear eye for goal. On the bench was another starlet in Franky Vercauteren, a player who had come through the Anderlecht youth system.

Although West Ham, a team that had faded dramatically after a strong start to 1975-76, took the lead, Anderlecht’s speed and directness earned them a 4-2 victory, with Rensenbrink and Van Der Elst scoring two apiece.

In the summer, Goethals arrived at the club after leading the national team between 1968 and 1976. OIne of Europe’s most coveted and charismatic coaches, he was known as “Raymond-la- science” for his incredible knowledge of the game, his range of nicknames also included “Le sorcier” and “Le Magicien”.  Always seen with a cigarette screwed into his mouth, Goethals was an advocate of zonal-marking and the 3-5-2 formation long before it became fashionable. At Anderlecht, he was fortunate to have some sublimely gifted players that could produce football with a swagger – casting them in the role of distant cousins of the Dutch sides of the period.

Goethals considered that the jewel in Anderlecht’s crown, Rensenbrink was often under-rated and from a technical perspective, every bit as good as the more high profile Johan Cruyff. Rensenbrink was an introvert, the complete opposite to his celebrated compatriot.

The only major signing for 1976-77, Goethals aside, was English forward Duncan McKenzie, a wonderfully skilful but infuriatingly inconsistent player. He played just nine games and scored two goals before being sold back to England and Everton.

Anderlecht went close to winning the title and finished second in both the league and cup, beaten 4-3 by Bruges in the final, despite leading 3-1. To underline that 1976-77 was a campaign of near misses, they also reached the Cup-Winners’ Cup final again, losing 2-0 to Hamburg in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium.

As Bruges had won the Belgian double, Anderlecht competed once more in the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1977-78. Belgium had an outstanding year in Europe that season, for Bruges reached the European Cup final and Anderlecht returned to the final of the competition they had won two years’ earlier. This time, they had a harder road to the final in Paris – beating Lokomotiv Sofia, Hamburg, Porto and Twente before facing Austria Vienna. It was easy going for Anderlecht in the Parc des Princes, a 4-0 win with Rensenbrink and full back Gilbert Van Binst both scoring twice.  Anderlecht’s consistency and performances in Europe meant they were ranked in the top six in UEFA’s team rankings in 1977-78 – even ahead of teams like Barcelona and Juventus.

Anderlecht continued to go close in the Belgian League but Goethals never won a domestic title with the club. He moved to Bordeaux in 1979 but returned to Belgium with Standard Liège where he won two championships. Linked to a bribery scandal when he was at Liège and forced to resign, he Later won the UEFA Champions League with Marseille. When he died at the age of 83, former Anderlecht player Hugo Broos paid this tribute to him: “I was lucky to play under him for three years – I look back on that period with a lot of happiness. Raymond was one of football’s eternal greats.”

Anderlecht were eventually champions in 1981 and two years’ later, they won the UEFA Cup. But their three consecutive European Cup-Winners’ Cup finals were a considerable achievement and put the club, and Belgian, football firmly on the map.

Photo PA: Anderlecht 1976-77