One of the all-time European classics at Stamford Bridge ended with the Champions League points being shared as Chelsea came from 4-1 down with 35 minutes remaining to claim a draw against Ajax at Stamford Bridge.
Eight goals, two more disallowed and a pair of red cards featured throughout a breathless evening under the lights in SW6. It was 1-1 after just five minutes as Tammy Abraham turned into his own net before Jorginho slotted in the first of two converted penalties, though Ajax then took control and led at half-time after further goals from Quincy Promes and another own goal by Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Donny van de Beek then made it 4-1 and seemingly put the group game to bed but Frank Lampard’s side refused to be beaten. Three goals in 11 minutes clawed us level as full-backs Cesar Azpilicueta and Reece James - the teenager becoming our youngest-ever Champions League goalscorer - netted either side of a Jorginho spot-kick. We thought we had completed the unlikeliest of comebacks when the skipper found the back of the net again late on but the officials ruled that one out, as they had earlier in the game, for an Abraham handball to curtail some jubilant celebrations.
Nevertheless, the result keeps our Champions League destiny in our own hands with two games remaining, away in Valencia and at home against Lille.
Marcos Alonso for Emerson Palmieri was the only change from the side that started at Watford on Saturday, which meant an unchanged forward line of Willian, Abraham and Christian Pulisic. N’Golo Kante and Andreas Christensen returned to the bench following injury layoffs, while captain Azpilicueta made his 50th European start for the Blues.
Ajax made a couple of switches to the team that started in Amsterdam a fortnight ago with Noussair Mazraoui and David Neres coming in.
It took 86 minutes for the breakthrough goal to arrive when these two sides met in Amsterdam a fortnight ago but there was no such delay for drama in west London as the fuse for a cracking European contest was lit early on Bonfire Night. A pair of goals were shared inside the opening five minutes as the top two in Group H traded quick blows.
Ajax struck first with less than two minutes on the clock as a free-kick from the left flank whipped in by Promes caused major problems in our six-yard box. Abraham, deployed in the near post zone, took a swipe and inadvertently helped the ball on its way past Kepa to give the visitors the advantage.
However, we were behind for just a few moments as an attack led by Pulisic conjured the equaliser. The American international had been involved in four goals in our previous three outings and it was his jinking run into the box that drew a foul from the lunging Joel Veltman. The referee swiftly pointed to the spot and up stepped Jorginho to slot in the penalty with a hop, skip and a jump from 12 yards out.
It was the Italian’s third Blues goal of the season, surpassing his tally from last term, and continued a flourishing run of form alongside Mateo Kovacic in the centre of midfield. With 14 minutes played, it was Kovacic who turned provider, slotting a perfect pass forward for Abraham, though our number nine’s neat finish past Andre Onana in the Ajax goal was correctly chalked off by the linesman’s flag for offside.
The Dutchmen had threatened throughout the reverse fixture, hitting the woodwork and seeing a goal of their own ruled out by the finest of offside margins, so it was no surprise that Eric ten Hag’s side looked such a threat. Dusan Tadic went close to firing them in front with a left-footed drive that flew narrowly over and into the Matthew Harding End, though it wasn’t much longer before they had the lead again.
Once more, a delivery from wide proved our undoing as Mazraoui crossed from the right and Promes escaped Azpilicueta’s attentions in the centre to divert a stooping header in for 2-1.
After a frenetic first 20 minutes, the contest settled a little midway through the first period. Hakim Ziyech teased in another centre that was headed behind for a corner by Abraham, with the striker having to work as much in his own penalty area as the opposition’s, though there was nothing he could do when Ajax’s Moroccan international delivered for their third.
The set-piece was positioned almost by the corner flag but the unlikely angle did not deter the forward, who curled the ball in dangerously. It evaded everyone in the box, struck the far post and then bounced off the face of the diving Kepa to find its way into the back of the net and extend the visitors’ lead.
Willian and Alonso forced saves from Onana before the break and it was a bright restart from the Blues, with Kurt Zouma going close to scoring a worldie early in the second half. The French centre-back collected the ball 20 yards inside his own half but embarked on a lung-busting run that took out five Ajax defenders. An unlikely step-over worked the space for a shot but the finish was high and wide.
The margins of Champions League football are often small and that was shown in the 10-minute spell at the start of the second period. Lampard’s side came out reinvigorated and the crowd were buoyed by the chance of a comeback.
Abraham’s looping header was an easy catch for Onana but the 22-year-old gave the Cameroonian far more to worry about moments later as Kovacic set him clear on goal. The striker’s choice of shot was a scooping one and the goalkeeper kept it out with a rather unorthodox save.
The Blues were punished moments later when Ajax went up the other end and made it 4-1 as an attack down the right found its way to the unmarked Van De Beek in the box and the midfielder steered a low strike across goal into the bottom far corner.
Three goals down to last season’s Champions League semi-finalists might have been enough to finish off most teams but Lampard’s Chelsea have a never-say-die resolve about them that means they can never quite be written off. The stage was set for one of the great European comebacks at the Bridge.
Azpilicueta got us back in the game with a captain’s goal. Pulisic once again did much of the good work in firing across the face of goal and Abraham deflected it goalwards but the skipper made sure by turning it in at the back post from a yard out. It was a close call for offside but the VAR check ruled it legal and the Blues had hope.
A manic few minutes turned the game on its head around the 70-minute mark as Ajax were reduced to nine men and their lead was halved. Blind was the first to be shown a red card after collecting a second booking for a late tackle on Abraham, though the referee played the advantage and the hosts made the most of it as substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi won a penalty after his shot hit the hand of Veltman.
The Dutch defender was also dismissed for a combination of that infringement and dissent, leaving Jorginho with the responsibility of dispatching a pressurised penalty. Our number five didn’t disappoint and fired in for 4-3.
Roared on by a disbelieving home crowd, we were incredibly on level terms three minutes later. James, who had replaced Alonso at half-time, fired in the equaliser to prompt incredible scenes. The chance had been instigated with a corner from the right which Zouma thumped on to the crossbar with a powerful header, though James pounced on the rebound and lashed in the leveller.
Incredibly, there was still 15 minutes left to play and Chelsea felt that was plenty of time to snatch a winner with an extra two men on the field. We thought it had come from the right boot of Azpilicueta but the Italian referee was invited to re-check the goal at the pitchside monitor and deemed the ball had hit Abraham’s hand, which ruled the goal out.
That seemed to take the prickling atmosphere out of the game a little and Kepa was forced to deny Promes, Edson Alvarez and Mazraoui before Michy Batshuayi had the final chance to repeat his Amsterdam heroics. Unfortunately, Onana dived low to the left to claw the ball away and save a point for his side.
At the end of an almost implausible night of football, it leaves Chelsea level with Ajax and Valencia on seven points in the group. The draw means we maintain our head-to-head superiority over the Dutch champions, which may come in handy in placing us above them in the final standings if we finish on level points.
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Chelsea (4-2-3-1) Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta (c), Zouma, Tomori, Alonso (James h/t); Jorginho, Kovacic (Batshuayi 87); Willian, Mount (Hudson-Odoi 60), Pulisic; Abraham
Unused subs Caballero, Christensen, Kante, Gilmour
Scorers Jorginho (pen) 5, (pen) 71, Azpilicueta 63, James 74
Booked Tomori 42, Azpilicueta 45
Ajax (4-3-3) Onana; Mazraoui, Veltman, Blind, Tagliafico; Van de Beek, Martinez, Ziyech (Alvarez 72); Neres (Schuurs 72), Tadic, Promes
Unused subs Varela, Huntelaar, De Jong, Marin, Dest
Scorers Abraham (og) 2, Promes 20, Kepa (og) 35, Van de Beek 55
Booked Veltman 31, Blind 33, Promes 62
Sent off Blind 68, Veltman 70
Referee Gianluca Rocchi from Italy