Tuesday night saw Chelsea and Ajax play in a Champions League group stage game to remember at Stamford Bridge. The action started from the second minute after a Quincy Promes free-kick turned into a Tammy Abraham own goal. The Blues were quick to respond, as they won a penalty due to Christian Pulisic’s rapid movement. Jorginho converted, but Ajax soon took control. A wonderfully weighted cross from Hakim Ziyech found Promes who gave the lead back to the Dutch champions. Ajax now had a one-goal cushion, but the control was still in their hands. Another 15 minutes passed, and this time it was another Chelsea own-goal that came to the benefit of Ajax. Ziyech whipped in a free-kick that hit the post and harshly came off of Kepa Arrizabalaga’s face for 3-1.
The second half saw a rampant Chelsea start very positively. It’s clear that the momentum shifted, and Chelsea were knocking. Donny van de Beek crashed the early second-half party for Chelsea after a Ziyech pass found him unmarked in the box for 4-1. A three-goal lead saw many believe that this one was done and dusted, however, that wasn’t the case. After a very good team play which involved Callum Hudson-Odoi, Willian, Pulisic, Abraham, and goal scorer Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea got one back in what looked like a very tight call where Azpilicueta looked offside. VAR confirmed the goal and at 4-2, this was the turning point in the game.
Then came the wildest sequence that will grab all the headlines. Daley Blind’s foul on Abraham wasn’t immediately given, it was an advantage for Chelsea. Hudson-Odoi took a shot from outside of the box that hit Joel Veltman’s hand. Referee Gianluca Rocchi gave Blind a second yellow for his foul then called the penalty for the Veltman handball. To put the cherry on top, Veltman received a second yellow for the handball or possibly even dissent after the penalty call. Jorginho converted his second penalty of the day.
Now with a two-man advantage and a little less than 30 minutes to play, it was in Chelsea’s hands. Minutes later, youngster Reece James made it 4-4 for the Blues in an enthralling moment. Chelsea continued attacking and it looked like they had the winner after Azpilicueta scored. VAR later overturned it after it was shown that it had hit Abraham’s hand in the lead up to the goal.
This concluded a fantastic game and a Champions League group stage game to remember at Stamford Bridge. With all of this being said, there are a few takeaways from viewing the game that can be further discussed.
Takeaways From Chelsea’s and Ajax’ Enthralling Draw at Stamford Bridge
Marcos Alonso is Simply Not Good Enough
Marcos Alonso was subbed off by Frank Lampard at the start of the second half. This decision had a big impact on the game as it introduced James into the fold which helped in Chelsea’s attack. Alonso has seen himself get a run of games under Lampard after a good display in the 3-4-3 formation that Lampard deployed after Emerson’s injury. Alonso plays very well in a back three because, naturally, he is a wing-back.
Historically, Alonso has never been able to play in a back four. The Spaniard’s performances for Fiorentina were in a left wing-back role. Under Antonio Conte, Alonso was one of the best players in the league as he played as the left wing-back in a back five. Under Maurizio Sarri, Alonso’s performances in a back four prompted him to get dropped and saw the introduction of Emerson. Lampard clearly prefers the 4-2-3-1 formation that we have seen this season.
The solution is simple: Emerson is a reliable player to have, however, he doesn’t have the natural attacking instinct that Reece James has. He also lacks the defensive solidity of Azpilicueta. The captain played many times at left-back under Jose Mourinho and it’s time he goes back there in order to give Reece James the right-back spot. We saw it in the second half of this game, and it worked very well. James is young and can have a similar impact as the other Chelsea graduates that have made their positions their own this season.
Hakim Ziyech is a Star
Ajax’s Champions League run last season caused other teams’ heads to be turned. Ajax have many bright talents and some of them have already been poached by other teams. Mathijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong were bought by Juventus and Barcelona respectively.
Hakim Ziyech isn’t as young as those other talents, as he turns 27 in March. That being said, many clubs would be foolish to not make a move for Ziyech. The Moroccan is in the prime of his career and has put many big-game performances on the biggest stage in the Champions League. This game was no different; Ziyech set-up two goals and forced the Kepa own-goal with a free-kick.
Ziyech plays in a traditional attacking midfield role as well as on the right-wing. Performances in the Eredivisie doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be a world-beater in the top five leagues. However, Ziyech has more than just a few great Eredivisie seasons in his repertoire. He played a key role in the elimination of Juventus and Real Madrid in the Champions League campaign last season. Any team that can pry him from Ajax will gain a game-changing player.
Referee Decisions Once Again at the Forefront of Another Game
The referee discussions after every game are just so tired. The rules are unclear and VAR, which is supposed to make things easier, has brought more people to argue rather than agree. Gianluca Rocchi’s decision to give Blind and Veltman a second yellow each due to the sequence that led to the second Chelsea penalty certainly had a huge effect on the game. Dusan Tadic, Ajax’s captain, was furious and even claimed that Rocchi stole the victory from Ajax.
Looking back at the sequence, Blind certainly fouls Tammy Abraham. Veltman’s hand wasn’t completely in an unnatural position but anything that seems to touch the hand is called these days. Not to mention, Chelsea had a goal disallowed as well due to a similar handball. This can be argued all day, however, there is a key moment that would’ve prevented all of this.
In the lead-up to the penalty, Pulisic fouls Blind seconds before Blind mistimes his tackle on Abraham to desperately win the ball. Rocchi didn’t call it. If the foul was called then, Blind and Veltman wouldn’t have gotten a second yellow each. The penalty also wouldn’t have been given. VAR needed to look at that as fouls leading up to the penalty need to be examined. That wasn’t the case, which is why this game was full of controversy.
Group H’s Remaining Fixtures are Must Watch
Group H is the most open group. After this result, Chelsea, Ajax, and Valencia are all tied on seven points. Lille are bottom of the group on one point, but they still have a role to play as they play Ajax in the next game, in which Ajax will be without both of their central defenders due to suspension.
Chelsea play Lille and Valencia in their remaining fixtures. They will be favourites against Lille, but they suffered their only defeat in the Champions League so far this season against Valencia.
Valencia will have the toughest time as they need to play Chelsea followed by Ajax with their defenders back in the fold barring injury.
Every game is must-win for every team, not just because qualification is on the line, but the top spot is also up for grabs. Seeding is important this season as it looks like Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Juventus have almost secured top spot in their respective groups. Avoiding the powerhouse teams like these in the Round of 16 will be a huge help in the group H teams’ respective Champions League campaigns.