In the land of windmills, tulips, clogs and round cheeses, Chelsea’s young stars – terrified of nothing – showed just what good movers they are with one of the most fluent, fluid and fast-paced performances under Frank Lampard’s exciting reign.
This was Chelsea at their best as they went toe-to-toe with one of the most formidable sides in the European top flight, and came away with a richly deserved 1-0 win to put them top of their Champions League group.
Like the cow outside the Amsterdam cheese museum, their once fleet-footed opponents were given the runaround for long spells of this absorbing tie, setting up a mouth-watering return leg in a fortnight at the Bridge.
“I’m so happy,” said the Blues manager afterwards. “Ajax are a really strong side. I was so, so proud of our performance.”
With five academy players in the starting line-up, the future not only looks rosy for Chelsea but for England too.
Don’t rule out the possibility of the Blues supplying half a dozen regulars in the national side by this time next year.
The early evening clash in Amsterdam revealed that Chelsea can compete on equal terms with the best, and showed that fearless young players, trusted by their manager with daunting tasks as well as the more run-of-the-mill assignments, can prosper.
Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi linked up superbly down the Blues’ left wing – the real danger zone for the Dutch league leaders – with Mount coming close to scoring in the 14th minute; his shot saved at the near post.
Nine minutes later, in one of the more surreal moments of this thoroughly entertaining match in the Johan Cruyff Arena, ref Ovidiu Hategan suddenly bounded over to Chelsea’s bench to show a red card to assistant manager Jody Morris – no stranger to such things in his playing days.
Still 0-0 at halftime, the second half continued in the rapid end-to-end play, with Ajax having their best chance just before the hour mark when Edson Alvarez’s glancing header struck the post and bounced harmlessly away. A ‘goal’ by Ajax’s most dangerous player, Quincy Promes, had earlier been ruled out by VAR for offside – a tight but correct decision.
Sub striker Michy Batshuayi, on for a positive – but frustrated – Tammy Abraham in the 71st minute, grabbed the all-important goal, having skyed an earlier effort so far over the bar that they were probably searching the canals for the ball.
In the 86th minute, as it looked like Chelsea had secured an important away point in a frantic 0-0 draw, Mount dashed down the left wing and fed sub Christian Pulisic, who had come on to replace Willian.
The ball scudded along the turf on the edge of Ajax’s six-yard box, Marcos Alonso dummied and it came to Batshuayi. The striker had to take a half step back, realign his shooting position, and fired up into the roof of the net.
In many ways it was outrageous for Lampard to bring on two extra forwards towards the end of this match, instead of settling for a draw. But it gives an insight into Lampard’s belief and ambition, and Chelsea are the better for his courage.
Captain Cesar Azpilicueta had one of his finest games in a blue (well, black on the night) shirt, making several vital interventions and turning defence into attack.
“Tonight, against a very good side, we showed a great ability to contol the game,” he said after the final whistle.
Watching in the BT studio, an elated former Chelsea star Joe Cole was purring with delight. “Everything feels right around the club,” he said.
Lampard agrees. “The great thing is the choice of strikers that I’ve got,” he said, when asked about Batshuayi’s goal. It’s the ninth time the dreadlocked one has come on as a sub and scored for Chelsea.
Now Chelsea have to keep up the momentum in the Champions League, as well as the Premier League itself, where Burnley are waiting to get stuck in to this young, eager squad at the weekend.