Believe nothing until the all-seeing eye of the video assistant referee has decreed it so, and as if to prove the case at this remarkable event, in front of a disbelieving stadium across eight goals, VAR served up two red cards, two penalties, and one disallowed winner.
Chelsea vs Ajax, the director’s cut. A Champions League game when nothing could be taken for certain until VAR had rewound and reviewed and it was hard to keep up at times for those in the stadium without the benefit of television replays. There were two Ajax players sent off in the same passage of play and then there was a dramatic late Cesar Azpilicueta winner ruled out long after the Chelsea captain had kissed his armband and launched himself chest-first on the turf.
Azpilicueta thought he had won it before VAR spotted a handball and all concerned looked a bit embarrassed about the preceding ebullience as Chelsea were forced to seek another winner against the nine men of Ajax. The best you could say was that VAR got the decisions right, and that will be enough for most, but watching this game in person was an exercise in piecing the evidence together as best as possible.
“A mad one” was how Frank Lampard would later describe it, although his team were the big VAR beneficiaries especially when it came to the double-red card for Daley Blind and Joel Veltman, the two Ajax centre-halves, with 20 minutes to play. The first for a second yellow for Blind for a foul on Abraham, then a second yellow for Veltman moments later when advantage was played and substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi’s shot struck the defender’s hand.
Unpicking the muddle was the Italian VAR Paolo Valeri, and within a few moments, Ajax were two men down and then their lead cut to 4-3 by the resulting penalty. Erik Ten Hag, the Ajax coach, would later say that Blind had been fouled earlier in the key phase of play and that the VAR should have taken that as his starting point.
It leaves Chelsea and the other three clubs in Group H all level on seven points from four games. Lampard’s team will go to Valencia in three weeks’ time for a crucial game. He said that there was much he could admire in this performance, “the spirit we showed and the character – I love”, he said, although it is about to get serious.
There was a first Chelsea goal for the 19-year-old Reece James, on as a substitute for the second half and lashing a shot through the penalty area to equalise at 4-4. He was one of five homegrown Chelsea players to feature over the course of the night. There were two penalties converted in either half by Jorginho, and they will need that composure over the last two group games.
For all their undoubted qualities going forward Chelsea remain vulnerable at the back. Indeed, when Donny Van de Beek scored in the 55th minute to make it 4-1, it felt like Ajax simply had more ringcraft than their opponents. Last season’s Champions League semi-finalists had outplayed Chelsea in the first half and their confidence was undimmed in those late stages when they continued attacking with nine men.
In many respects, Ajax are what Chelsea would like to be – a confident, fluent side who suck opposition in and pass around them. They have two Moroccans, two Argentines, a Brazilian, a Cameroonian and a Serb in their starting line-up, as well as the Dutch; all unmistakeably schooled in the same style of play. They lost their two best players in the summer and yet the daring of last season’s team endures with some wonderful players who will, one assumes, also one day leave.
The first Ajax goal flicked in off Tammy Abraham’s boot, from Quincy Promes’ free-kick out on the left wing with just 1min 46 secs on the clock. The ball that whipped into the area caused Chelsea many problems and no-one did it better for Ajax than the Moroccan international Hakim Ziyech.
His cross on 20 minutes from the right was perfectly flighted for the head of Promes to make it 2-1. Later, on 35 minutes, it was from a free-kick out wide and barely a few feet in from the goalline which Ziyech struck so perfectly that it eluded Kepa Arrizabalaga, cannoned off the post and then went in off the goalkeeper’s face. Ziyech could never have meant it – but his left foot does deliver the ball in ways that make unusual things happen.
Chelsea had equalised shortly after the first Ajax goal in what was a thundering start to the game, Christian Pulisic drawing a foul from Veltman on 2min 50secs, the defender’s first booking. From the penalty spot, the little skip in Jorginho’s run-up sent Andre Onana the wrong way for the first time. Abraham had a goal ruled out for offside on 14 minutes.
Van de Beek made it 4-1 ten minutes after the break when a malfunctioning Chelsea defence gave him space for the shot. For all that, Chelsea had started the half well and their reward came. First a goal from Azpilicueta that looked offside as he turned it in on the line. Then the red cards for Blind and Veltman. Jorginho scored the penalty for 4-3. James drove the ball in for 4-4 and it would have been won for Chelsea by Azpilicueta had VAR not spotted a handball by Abraham. They had already celebrated it like a winner, and faced with scoring another they fell just short.