They went to the Johan Cruyff arena and matched last season’s champions league semi finalists throughout, and after two impact substitutions from Lampard deservedly took home all three points.
Both teams lined up 4-3-3 in the first of the ‘double header’ fixtures in the group. The early tempo was frantic as two young sides went at it from the off. Chelsea set their stool out early though, giving as much as they took in a charged atmosphere. We were however caught on the ball in our own half a couple of times inside the first ten minutes, on the second occasion an over-optimistic one two between Abraham and Kovacic was intercepted, leading to a shot just wide from the edge of the box by Tadic.
We didn’t settle on the ball early on, Ajax pressing aggressively high in midfield meaning it was difficult to find Jorginho in space. One such example took place after they pressed us on the edge of our own box from a goal kick, Kepa forced into punting straight to Ziyech, who’s shot was charged down by Zouma. For a period early on our sloppy ball usage saw us squander chances in the final third, and leave us under pressure when possession was surrendered in our own half. This wasn’t to last long though. We had our first sighter when an Alonso cross was headed clear only as far as Hudson-Odoi inside the box left of centre, but he pulled his effort wide at the near post.
Chelsea were also showing that they could succeed with a high press, but when Ajax dropped both Alvarez and Van de Beek deeper in midfield, we were more reticent to commit midfielders as high up the pitch as the hosts were when out of possession, which bought them time in the middle.
Mason Mount was ever available, cleverly finding space by pulling wide, he cut inside from the right to fire the only shot on target of the half, dealt with well by Onana in the Ajax goal low to his right.
VAR came to our rescue shortly before half time. Ziyech curled a shot from the edge of the box, which deflected of the back of Tomori. This sent it perfectly into the patch of Promes at the far post, and he tapped home. After the celebrations came the obligatory check, and replays showed that he had strayed marginally offside as the shot was struck. The correct decision.
We asserted ourselves well at the start of the second period, and the match remained a tight affair between two well-matched teams that could go either way. Ajax showed they can still move the ball as well as they did in last season’s competition on the hour. Kovacic was caught on it in midfield, Alonso came out to cover, but quick ball movement from the hosts exposed the space and created a shooting opportunity for Tadic after good work from Van de Beek, the shot deflecting wide for a corner.
Promes whipped an out-swinger into the near post, and Alvarez did well to reach it and head against the far post.
Lampard made the first of two key changes in the 66th minute. Hudson-Odoi was switched to the right wing and Willian withdrawn. Christian Pulisic replaced him. The American international looked extremely dangerous for the duration of the match. Seven minutes after his introduction, his direct run and shot deflected into the patch of Batshuayi in the clear twelve yards out. The Belgian only recently on in place of Abraham. He chested and volleyed, but couldn’t keep it down. A huge chance missed. Little did we know the tide had turned and we were on the front foot now. The match was still being played at a rapid pace, and Ajax had a chance at the other end immediately, Ziyech’s deep cross from the right picking out Promes at the far post, but at full stretch he could only turn it wide of goal.
Although it was man for man all over the pitch, we were getting good possession wide on the left as Ziyech didn’t always track Alonso’s runs forward from left back. We worked the ball along the back line to find Alonso, who moved it inside to Mount. His superb turn gave him room to drive towards the area, but the final ball was cut out. Good signs nevertheless. Another Alonso foray forward saw him have time to feed Batshuayi, who’s delightful first time back-heel played it back wide to Pulisic. His cross was cut out before reaching Batshuayi at the near post. Every time Pulisic got on the ball down the left we looked dangerous.
We had a shout for a penalty from the resulting Hudson-Odoi corner. Zouma headed across goal to find centre back partner Tomori, who jumped for a header with an Ajax defender who appeared to lead with a hand, which deflected the header. VAR checked but no decision was made.
Pulisic showed more promise as he ran at the Ajax backline again, cutting inside to shoot from the edge of he box this time, narrowly wide at the near post. Could we really knick all three points here?
The answer was yes. Four minutes from time Alonso came forward again untracked by Ziyech. He found Kovacic who moved it onto Christian Pulisic wide on the left. He took on full back and fellow international teammate Dest, finding half a yard to get a low cross in to Batshuayi. With the ball just behind him, Batshuayi adjusted and fired a left foot effort off the underside of the bar and into the net. A fantastic performance had been capped off with a winning goal. He had made up for his earlier miss, and nearly doubled his tally when Ajax gave it away in front of their own box in stoppage time, Jorginho finding Batshuayi who turned and shot left footed again, Onana just doing enough to turn it around the post.
Chelsea had done enough, securing a vital win in the context of the group away at the side that were topping it coming into match day three. Truly a landmark performance for this young team, and a night Frank Lampard should be very proud off.
Ajax (4-3-3) 0
Onana; Dest, Veltman, (Huntelaar 89), Blind, Tagliafico;
Alvarez, (De Jong 89), Van De Beek, Martinez;
Ziyech, Tadic, Promes, (Neres 74).
Chelsea (4-3-3) 1 (Batshuayi 86)
Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta, ©, Zouma, Tomori, Alonso;
Jorginho, Kovacic, Mount;
Willian, (Pulisic 66), Abraham, (Batshuayi 71), Hudson-Odoi, James 90).