Chelsea returned to Champions League action on Wednesday as they traveled to Amsterdam for what was expected to be their toughest group match, away to Ajax.
Despite lengthy European histories for both clubs, this is the first time the have ever met in a competitive match. However, Chelsea have happy memories of visiting their stadium, as a Branislav Ivanović inspired Blues side won the Europa League final here.
The Blues had started this campaign with a disappointing loss at home to Valencia. However, since then Frank Lampard’s team have improved in almost every facet. They are currently on a run of 5 consecutive victories, including a win away to Lille in the last group match.
Ajax themselves are also on a winning streak of 5 matches and sit proudly at the top of the group after beating both the French and Spanish sides.
Their good start to the season comes despite the sale of a number of their star players over the summer including Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt who both moved on for big money.
But last season’s semi finalists are currently unbeaten this term and were clearly relishing the chance to pit their wits against one of Europe’s other outstanding young teams.
Both sides lined up as 4-3-3 as Frank made just the 1 enforced change to the team that started against Newcastle United. Mateo Kovacic replaced the injured Ross Barkley, with Billy Gilmour on the substitute’s bench.
Callum Hudson-Odoi, making his first Champions League start was deployed on the left, with Mason Mount continuing in a more central role and Christian Pulisic starting on the bench.
The Blues immediately tried to dominate the play and possession, while the hosts were very happy to show how dangerous they are on the counter attack.
Ajax had the early chances but Chelsea’s defence held strong, especially Zouma and Tomori who left little space in front of Arrizabalaga.
But it was the home side’s play that started to gain the ascendancy, so much so that Tammy Abraham was joining in the fun in midfield.
As the frenetic start to the match ebbed slightly, it was The Blues who regained the narrowest of control. However, Hudson-Odoi’s wayward shooting allowed the home side to retain possession deep in their half as they tried to regain their breath.
That appeared to do the trick as a deflected cross was tapped in by the dangerous Quincy Promes. However Ajax’s first attempt on target was ruled out by VAR.
Cesar Azpilicueta, on his 350th appearance for The Blues then made an outstanding, goal saving tackle on Promes. Soon after, the Chelsea captain had a chance to cap his latest landmark but his rifled shot missed it’s target.
It had been an enthralling, exhilarating, but tight first half. Chelsea had managed to restrict their hosts to no attempts on target but either side have the ability and talent to score at any moment.
Frank didn’t make a substitution at half time but he clearly sent Kovacic out with a remit to remain a little deeper in order to leave less space for the home side’s quick counter attack play.
As a result Ajax struggled to get forward as regularly as they had before the break. Then on the hour mark, an Ajax corner was flicked on to the post and then former Manchester United defender Danny Blind finally registered the home side’s first attempt on target.
There was a more measured approach from both sides during the second half and the match started to gain a real edge in midfield.
With minimal incision from either forward line, Frank decided to introduce Pulisic and Michy Batshuayi who had both impressed when coming on in recent matches.
The 2 of them immediately showed plenty of hunger and a great understanding. And they came the closest to breaking the deadlock.
Chelsea continued to dominate and as the match started to get stretched with Ajax trying but failing to make a difference. But it was the 2 Chelsea substitutes who eventually won the tie.
This was an outstanding result for Frank Lampard and his players. Ajax are a quality side who enjoyed sweeping away some of Europe’s best teams last season.
However they do rely heavily on their pacy attacking play. Chelsea really showed they are coming of age and outplayed their hosts in all departments.
Chelsea’s defence held very strong against such a dangerous opponent. Jorginho and Kovacic, especially in the second half, shielded their defenders. Mount, Hudson-Odoi and Abraham always looked like a threat.
But it was when the attacking line were finding it beyond them to break through, the manager made the correct changes at the correct moments.
It is not only rare for any side to go to the Johan Cruyff ArenA and not be dominated or outplayed, but The Blues richly deserved their win.
Ajax had scored 14 goals in their last 5 matches, but their best chance was a flicked header from a corner. Meanwhile Chelsea continued to grow during the match and their display eventually won all 3 points.
And as they now stretch their winning run to 6 matches, there are improvements every time they play. The feel good factor coursing through the club now continues to increase.
And to cap it all, Frank’s young and developing side have now won away at the past masters of how to develop outstanding youth products into world class players.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue