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Pat Nevin chooses his player of the Ajax tie and recalls former 4-4s

Our regular columnist and former Blue Pat Nevin writes about the free-scoring football currently entertaining everyone and highlights spot-kick style that is a joy to behold…

Our regular columnist and former Blue Pat Nevin writes about the free-scoring football currently entertaining everyone and highlights spot-kick style that is a joy to behold…


It is not something you often hear, but I felt sorry for the print journalists on Tuesday night. When the final whistle blew after that incredible 4-4 draw with Ajax, many of them had to get their copy sent within minutes, knowing that the entire story could change at any second until that final moment they must have been stressed. They also had to fit all that action and those talking points into a few hundred words, I mean how can you do that game justice without having time to reflect and consider.

Maybe trying to seriously consider it isn’t that helpful in a tactical sense, some games are just bizarre and brilliant. The reason for it was obvious, both Chelsea and Ajax are teams with a youthful exuberance and a committed fearlessness that leads to fabulous entertainment. Of course there is some naïveté in there as well, but give me that over a studied, cynical, boring, ultra-professionalism any day.

It was summed up for Chelsea at 4-1 down when we got one back to make it 4-2. Not only the players believed that the comeback was on, the crowd absolutely believed it too and they/you let the players know it. I am not sure the point would have been won in the end had the fans not played their crucial part.

It is great to be at a game that you know, even while it is going on, that this is one of the games you will never forget. Let’s be honest, there are many that merge into each other as the years go by, but some stand out and this was one of them. I know this because I was involved in a few 4-4 games in my career and there are two I remember especially clearly. The first was Sheffield Wednesday v Chelsea in the League Cup and any Chelsea fan who was there will tell you how magical and memorable it was. 3-0 down at half -time and a seminal performance by our substitute Paul Canoville led to 4-4 after extra-time. We won the replay!
 

I also played in a 4-4 for Everton v Liverpool at Goodison, this time in the FA Cup and again it went to extra-time and again we won the replay. It was not only the score line that was important but in both these games, just like Tuesday, ‘my’ team came back from being down to snatch the draw. That is what makes it all the sweeter. Had we been 4-1 up against Ajax and then only managed a draw, we would look at this game very differently indeed. As such, it is right up there with the memorable Champions League nights at Stamford Bridge, even though if I am honest there were large parts of the game when we were second best to a seriously impressive Ajax side.

I suppose it underlines just how well we had done against them over in Amsterdam. Getting four points from six is magnificent in the circumstances. I looked at this game in detail with Mario Melchiot and he was equally impressed with Chelsea against his other former side. Now that the dust has settled, can we agree that Cesar Azpilicueta was the player of the tie? Considering all the talent on show, can it really be that our full-back was the top man?
 

Not only was he brilliant in Amsterdam from start to finish but he scored on Tuesday after being moved to left-back and but for the all-seeing eye of VAR, he would have hammered in the winner for 5-4. He was also up against Ajax’s best player so he had his difficult moments, but he stuck to his task and gave at least as good as he got.

So add on the red cards, some bizarre decisions by the officials, eight goals that counted and two other goals ruled out by VAR, this felt like the reason why we love football. It was non-stop entertainment.

I desperately hope both these sides go through to the next stage as their attitudes deserve it. Near the end when they were down to nine men, I expected our visitors to hold on for a point at 4-4. I was amazed when they tried to press us high in our own box. They won a corner and had the audacity to make a very good chance in open play. Hadn’t they read the rule book? Away from home, with minutes to go, with only nine men, you are supposed to park the bus right in front of your own goal. I loved their positive spirit and I suspect they admired Chelsea’s too for not giving up at 4-1.

There have been some incredible games with wild, high scores in the Champions League over the past few seasons. What was it that Jose used to say? ‘That is a basketball/hockey score, not a football score’. Well these days the high scorers are now the successful sides. Barcelona, Man City, Liverpool to a degree and even Bayern Munich with their seven against Spurs are nudging into that category. Chelsea are clearly now a more free-scoring side under Frank Lampard than they have been for many, many years, but that is the direction of travel at the top of the game just now and I think we are all happy to be on board for the ride.

It is almost impossible to imagine a more tactically different side to Ajax than Crystal Palace who come to the Bridge on Saturday. Roy Hodgson’s team are structured almost militarily defensively, in a style that almost makes it look like a different sport, never mind different team. That is not to say I am unimpressed. In fact he has done a fantastic job down at Selhurst Park. When they do attack with Zaha and co. they can also be very entertaining and dangerous. Without Jorginho and possibly Mason Mount too, it will be interesting to see if we can play in the same style as we have this season so far. It is a huge test.

And maybe just a last word on Jorginho. I did some analysis for the BBC website a month ago on the changing style of penalty kicks. I also obviously mentioned it on The 5th Stand too. I made clear then that I thought the Jorginho penalty style is maybe the best in the game today, even better than Eden Hazard’s genius method, and that is saying something.
 

He was at it again on Tuesday and it remains a joy to watch. Even more of a joy was to hear his name ringing out around the ground as the fans made it clear that he is now one of their favourites. It made my heart sing to hear it, at last.

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