Every now and then, a match comes along that leaves everyone practically speechless. Bonfire Night delivered one of those games at Stamford Bridge when Ajax – minus their fans, banned for bad behaviour – turned up hell-bent on avenging a 1-0 defeat at their place in the Champions League.
It’s difficult to know where to start and where to finish, but here goes.
In a nutshell, Ajax romped to a 3-1 lead at half-time, thanks – in large part – to a couple of howlers from Chelsea keeper Kepa… and were 4-1 up with less than half an hour to go.
Chelsea managed to scramble a goal back, so – with barely 20 minutes left on the clock – were 2-4 down.
Then luck/fortune/kharma – call it what you will – struck. Daley Blind was sent off for a second bookable foul in the 68th minute, followed 60 seconds later by his team-mate Joel Veltman, also for a second bookable offence.
The Italian ref, an excitable and card-happy man called Gianluca Rocchi, made it 11 v 9, and Chelsea capitalised. A penalty brought it to 3-4, another goal made it 4-4 and when, in the 78th minute, captain Cesar Azpilicueta lashed in another, it looked like Chelsea had achieved one of the comebacks of all time.
But nothing’s simple in this life, and Frank Lampard’s detested VAR intervened to rule the ‘winner’ out. It remained 4-4, Ajax dug deep and held on, and the final whistle came as something of a relief to anyone with a dodgy ticker.
Group H is now looking a perverse mini table with Ajax, Chelsea and Valencia all on seven points, and Lille on one. Still to come for Chelsea, Valencia away and Lille at the Bridge.
Things began badly for a Blues team who were truly off-colour in the first half, with Tammy Abraham conceding an own-goal in under two minutes, flicking Quincy Promes’s free kick past Kepa.
But two minutes later parity was restored when Jorginho sent Ajax keeper Andre Onana the wrong way from the spot after Christian Pulisic had earned a penalty for a clumsy trip.
Ajax regained the lead on 21 minutes when a curling cross was headed home by – again – Promes, undoubtedly the best player on show in both the Amsterdam and London matches between these two fascinating-to-watch sides. Kepa could and should have come for the ball, but mysteriously didn’t. Sometimes his judgement is exasperating.
Around the half-hour mark, both Veltman and Blind picked up their first yellow cards of the evening, for fouls on Willian and Mateo Kovacic respectively. No one realised the significance those bookings would have.
A curling free kick by Hakim Ziyech from a seemingly impossible angle down by the byeline on 35 minutes evaded Kepa, hit the post, riccocheted back and hit him full in the face, then bounced into the net, to make it 1-3 to Ajax, and there it stayed until the second half.
Marcos Alonso was having something of a mare, with wayward shots and passes characterising his evening. So at the start of the second half Frank Lampard brought on Reece James in his place.
It was a bold move, and failed to stem the Dutch tide in a one-sided stadium with no Ajax fans theoretically permitted to be inside (though a few sneaked in via tout tickets). Chelsea fans ended up singing songs against each other.
Donny van de Beek made it 4-1, and that looked that. But when the Blues captain Azpilicueta pulled one back, and Ajax lost Blind and then Veltman for second yellows in quick succession, things began to change.
Jorginho converted a second penalty before James became the youngest Chelsea player of all time, at just 19, to score in the Champions League to level at 4-4, reacting well after Kurt Zouma had headed against the bar.
Azpilicueta thought he’d scored the winner, only for VAR to rule it out for handball by Abraham, and Ajax held on – just – for a point. After the endless faffing about for VAR and for the red card arguments, it was a travesty that the fourth official only held up the board indicating four additional minutes of play.
Another couple of minutes and Chelsea would surely have got the winner… but despite Lampard’s indignation on the touchline, four minutes – precisely – was added, and a 4-4 draw resulted. The scene below was at the final whistle.
“I can’t explain the game,” admitted Lampard. “For all the things we might analyse back, the madness of the game, we are here for entertainment I suppose and anyone who watched that has to say ‘What a game of football!’. Respect to Ajax, what a spectacle!
“I don’t think I have been in a game like it. The two own goals were the story of the first half. I said at half-time it will be 3-3 or 4-4, we were so in the game.
“We looked dangerous and I felt we would build momentum. I’m not happy overall, this is the Champions League and we made too many mistakes. But the biggest pleasure is the spirit the whole stadium showed. I can’t give you much on the red cards, I didn’t really see what they were for.
“At half-time I would have taken a draw, for sure. Let’s take it as what it was. I was expecting somewhere towards 10 minutes of added time, not sure where four came from.”