Some players collapsed to the turf in exhaustion at the final whistle. Others stood with their hands on their hips, dazed and confused by what they had experienced. In the stands, the fans were similarly stunned. This was a game that defied logic. A 4-4 draw that had it all.
After an hour at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea were 4-1 down despite Ajax having only had two shots on target. By the end, they were wondering how they had not won. It would have been fitting for this crazy game to have been settled by a second goal from Cesar Azpilicueta, the unlikeliest of scorers. But for VAR to rule his effort out felt even more appropriate.
The madness began with two goals in the opening four minutes. Chelsea seemed to be in the ascendency when Jorginho’s penalty cancelled out Tammy Abraham’s own goal, but Ajax – beaten by Michy Batshuayi’s late strike in Amsterdam two weeks ago – responded in stunning style.
At half-time, they were two goals up. Soon after it, they extended their lead further. Their third came courtesy of a Hakim Ziyech free kick from close to the corner flag. Their fourth was a sucker-punch, ruthlessly dispatched by Donny van de Beek just when it seemed Chelsea were fighting back.
Each Ajax goal was greeted by near total silence at Stamford Bridge, the absence of any away fans due to a UEFA sanction adding to the surrealness of the occasion. While there were no Ajax supporters there to rub it in, however, Chelsea did not need reminding they were staring humiliation in the face.
It is a measure of how much goodwill this young side has accrued recently, though, that there was no hint of protest among the home fans. They stayed with the team and when Azpilicueta tapped home from close range in the 63rd minute, the belief returned. Frank Lampard pumped his fists in the dugout. Abraham cajoled the crowd. It was game on.
Then, five minutes later, came the passage of the play Ajax manager Erik ten Hag would later describe as the moment “everything changed”. Daley Blind was sent off, his centre-back partner Joel Veltman followed him, and Jorginho converted his second penalty to cut the lead to one goal.
Three fevered minutes later, there was no lead at all, with Reece James, one of seven academy graduates in Chelsea’s 18-man squad, hitting the equaliser through a crowd of bodies after a Kurt Zouma header had come back off the bar. It made him Chelsea’s youngest ever Champions League goalscorer. He could not have chosen a better time to find the net.
Stamford Bridge erupted with increasing intensity at every goal, and it shook to its foundations when Azpilicueta smashed home what he thought was the winner. It was only once the celebrations had died down that the VAR verdict was announced, confirming another twist in a night full of surprises as the scoreline reverted from 5-4 to 4-4.
That’s how it stayed but, incredibly, it could have gone either way in the final 10 minutes. The nine men of Ajax continued pouring forwards, continued finding gaps in their opponents, and while Chelsea would have won it if not for a superb Andre Onana save from Batshuayi at the death, Kepa Arrizabalaga’s stop from Lisandro Martinez was just as good.
Nobody knew quite what to make of it at the final whistle. Was it relief to have avoided embarrassment, or disappointment not to have taken all three points? “Both,” answered a grinning Lampard in his press conference.
He will be concerned by the defensive frailties which allowed Ajax to score four goals, not the mention the naivety of conceding repeated free kicks to a side who were proving so dangerous from set pieces, but the result keeps Chelsea on track for the knock-out stages and the comeback reinforces the feeling that this group can achieve something special.
“Take VAR out of it, the red cards, etcetera and what I think about is us, and the spirit that we showed,” Lampard added. “The character was something that I loved and I think our fans loved. We need to tighten up, for sure, but with that spirit we can go places.”
Lampard praised experienced “personalities” and “characters” such as Jorginho and Azpilicueta for making the comeback possible. He talked up James as the latest academy product to be destined for the top. But even he, a veteran of Chelsea’s greatest Champions League nights, could not make much sense of what happened out on the pitch. It was a reminder that sometimes in football, logic goes out the window.
Source: Sky Sports