Kids, huh? In the middle of the second half of a cold, turbulent, and increasingly wild night on Stamford Bridge, this game simply collapsed.
Better maybe just keep the numbers. At 62 minutes, Ajax had no fans, 11 players and three goals ahead. At 71 minutes, Ajax had nine players and no advantage. They didn't have fans yet. Chelsea scored two goals and two penalties. Chelsea threw four in the back (terribly) and then three in the back (progressively). And the score, somehow, was 4-4; as it would be, somehow, until the end.
The match went through at least two distinct seasons. The first was the era of Ajax dominance, the passing and movement incision that led them to a 4-1 lead. After that, it was time for witches, that post-Halloween trick of mischief, when suddenly the air began to crackle, the moon shone a strange shade of blue, and this team of Chelsea's heart took the game by the throat.
It was, above all, a brilliantly entertaining spectacle. Chelsea took 22 shots on goal and really should have won. But Ajax was also incredibly reckless. With nine men on the field after Daley Blind and Joël Veltman were sent off during The Happening – a blur of fouls, handball and yellow cards – they continued to advance in search of a winner. He was majestic, fearless, and filled with wonderful Cruyffian arrogance.
Ajax players react after Joël Veltman (concealed) receives a red card from Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi. Photo: Adrian Dennis / AFP via Getty Images
And yes, here is an obvious removal of all the goodwill generated by Chelsea's ragged rearguard. The fact is that they were taken apart for an hour. Ten minutes before the double kick, just before Donny van de Beek's kick increased Chelsea's net to 4-1, Frank Lampard could already be seen walking away, a horrible smile on his face.
Lampard had watched Christian Pulisic give the ball high, while the Chelsea quarterbacks, who had thrown a haze of confusion all night, left huge unwanted green spaces within their own area. Van de Beek had time to breathe and admire the mist that flooded the low white lights of the ceiling before catching the ball in the corner.
At that moment, Chelsea had not just been opened. They were cut and sliced, the flesh removed from the bones. It was a kind butcher, who owed a great deal to the guy on the blood-soaked bench, a Chelsea team intent on helping to lower the knife.
It seemed an easy narrative, the ad hoc policy applied to young people by Chelsea educated in reality by the European masters of succession. Ajax has become a football nursery because of something innate in Dutch sports culture, an economic necessity but also an almost intellectual rigor. Chelsea followed a similar path because they were arrested for hiring young players from other clubs.
There are one or two differences there and also in the field. In the first 40 minutes, Mason Mount and Pulisic completed five passes between them. At halftime, the same pair gave the ball to an Ajax shirt 11 times, one less than they could with their own players.
The Ajax was very compact, vigorous, too beautiful in its movements. Meanwhile, Chelsea defended with all the resistance of a very wet digestive biscuit, three of Ajax's four goals scored in the spaces that speak of some kind of system failure, shutdown, category error.
With five minutes left, it was 1-1. A free kick from Quincy Promes was deflected and tied for a penalty owing a pre-attendance to the Mount race. At this point, Ajax began the orderly process of taking the game away until the 11-minute recovery period.
What to do with all this? It will be tempting to see in Chelsea's performance only chaos, weaknesses, loss of control. But this is also disregarding something vital about the way teams work. There is much talk this week about Chelsea triggering the buying arm immediately if the transfer ban is lifted. It seems remarkable that a club that has finally found a bit of soul will risk it all by running back to the market. Or rather, it would be if you weren't watching in the last 15 years.
But there was also something precious on display here. Chelsea earned a point – keeping them level with Ajax – in spirit, warmth and willingness to enjoy the game at the time of opening. It can still go nowhere. Even four points from the last two games can still make them fall short of second place. But there was life here too, for all the irregularity and above all a sense, something taking root.
. (tagsToTranslate) Chelsea (t) Champions League (t) Ajax (t) Football (t) Sport