Michy Batshuayi and Christian Pulisic came off the bench to earn Frank Lampard’s exciting young team a 1-0 win over last year’s surprise package
It may not have been pretty at times, and Chelsea certainly enjoyed their fair share of luck, but Wednesday night’s 1-0 win over Ajax in Amsterdam proved than Frank Lampard’s young side can flourish in the Champions League.
Their campaign got off to a disappointing start, with the Blues suffering a 1-0 loss at home to Valencia on a night in which their lack of top-level experience was called into question.
Chelsea’s players are clearly fast learners, though.
Here, at the Johan Cruyff ArenA, they dug in, they made the most of what good fortune came their way and they came away with three precious points that moves them level with Ajax at the top of Group H – but above their vanquished opponents on account of their superior head-to-head record.
Lampard will get plenty of praise for this victory – and rightly so.
He’s regularly lauded for putting his faith in youngsters but, on this occasion, he should also be commended for the way in which he changed the game by bringing on Michy Batshuayi and Christian Pulisic.
Turning to Batshuayi ahead of Olivier Giroud was a bold call and one that looked like it might backfire when the Belgian missed a glorious chance in the closing stages.
However, with just four minutes remaining, Batshuayi fired home off the underside of the crossbar after excellent work from Pulisic, who had been a bundle of positive energy from the moment he set foot on the pitch.
Ajax will feel hard done by, particularly as VAR ruled out a first-half strike from Quincy Promes because his shoulder appeared to be fractionally in an offside position.
However, Lampard will be delighted with how his side defended.
The Blues only managed one clean sheet in 12 matches before the last international break; now, they’ve managed two in two games in the space of four days.
Fikayo Tomori made an early error in midfield, which resulted in a chance for Donny van de Beek, but the defender was almost immaculate from that moment on.
Indeed, he became so confident that at one point he bamboozled Hakim Ziyech with a Cruyff turn in the most appropriate of venues.
The Blues were boxed in by the Dutch champions for nearly the entire game but Tomori and his central defensive partner Kurt Zouma held firm, underlining that the latter has well and truly recovered from his difficult start to the season.
Zouma’s power regularly came in useful in the face of such a sustained onslaught but it was his focus and awareness that really caught the eye.
Injuries to Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen may have thrown them together but Tomori and Zouma came up trumps in Chelsea’s toughest test of the season to date.
It must be said that they were aided by excellent displays from the full-backs, Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso out wide.
Alonso began the season as Chelsea’s second-choice left-back but he has been now back ahead of Emerson Palmieri in the pecking order, after taking full advantage of his rival’s unfortunate injury by proving that he can defend as well as he attacks.
Azpilicueta’s display on his 350th appearance for the club will surprise few, of course. The ever-reliable captain was arguably the pick of the defenders, thanks in no small part to a pair of crucial last-ditch clearances when Promes twice looked set to score.
N’Golo Kante was missed in the middle of the park – as always – but Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic worked tirelessly for the cause.
Up front, Tammy Abraham failed to fire, while Callum Hudson-Odoi had a rare off day.
However, in the end, it mattered not, as Lampard made the right changes at the right time – just as he had in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Newcastle at Stamford Bridge.
The scoreline was the same here in Amsterdam but this was a far more significant result.
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Chelsea are no Ajax in terms of resources and their reliance on youth was forced upon them this summer by a transfer ban, but the Blues do boast an excellent academy and a first team now full of its products.
So, while this has been still early days, it has been worth remembering that the Dutch surprised everyone by reaching the semi-finals last year.
Maybe, just maybe, Chelsea could make just as big an impression on this season’s tournament. If nothing else, the early signs are promising…