Chelsea are facing a difficult test in the Champions League, as they travel to face last season’s surprise semi-finalists Ajax. The Blues have been praised for their approach this season, as they have hired a young couch in Frank Lampard, with the aim of bringing through the new generation at Stamford Bridge. They may have been forced into the approach, due to a transfer ban. However, there is no arguing against the early success that the club has enjoyed. On Wednesday, they come up against a club famous for their approach to youth development and it will be a great watch for the neutral.
It was great to see Ajax perform to a high standard in last season’s Champions League, as it showed that clubs from outside of the top five leagues can compete at the highest level. The Dutch club knocked out Real Madrid and Juventus, thanks to their high intensity style of play that was so difficult to deal with. This was helped by one of the most talented generations coming through under Erik ten Hag. Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt both moved on during the summer, but the club managed to keep the core of the squad together, with more talent arriving at the club. They will be a tricky test for any side in this competition and they head into this fixture as favourites, which emphasises their progression in the recent years.
In recent weeks, the performances from Chelsea have been markedly better in both halves of the pitch. The underlying performance indicators, such as expected goals created and expected goals conceded, suggest that the Blues are the frontrunners to secure a top-four finish. This would be a remarkable achievement, with many pundits stating pre-season that a top-six finish would be par for the club in this transition year. The young players have been praised for their impact, but the improvement of senior players should see Lampard praised. Jorginho, Marcos Alonso and Willian all starred during Saturday’s victory over Newcastle United. This competition won’t be seen as a priority, but they could emerge as real dark horses in the coming weeks. The group isn’t easy, but any of the four teams could progress.
Ajax have scored at least twice in their last 20 Eredivisie home matches. They have taken their goal-scoring form into the Champions League, finding the back of the net on six occasions in two matches.
Callum Hudson-Odoi became the first teenager to create five or more chances in a Premier League game for Chelsea since Romelu Lukaku in May 2012. His performance against Newcastle was excellent.
The 26-year-old was expected to be one of those that left during the summer after starring during the team’s run to the semi-final last season. However, he has remained at the Eredivisie club and he will be looking to be even more influential this season. During the last fixture, he scored an excellent goal against Valencia, while his overall impact was obvious. Ziyech attempted three shots and created three chances. The attacking midfielder completed 22 of his 31 attacking third passes. This was slightly fewer than he would have hoped, but he was always looking to make things happen and his positivity on the ball will cause problems for Chelsea on Wednesday. The Blues have regularly shown their defensive vulnerabilities and Ajax will be confident that they can continue their impressive scoring run in the competition.
The young players have taken the deadlines at Chelsea this season, but the progression of Jorginho has been great to watch. Last season, he has criticised by many and was quickly associated with Maurizio Sarri. It was assumed that he would leave the club in the summer following the managerial change, with some believing that he may follow his former coach to Juventus. However, he stayed at Stamford Bridge and he is now emerging as one of the best central midfielders in the Premier League. It is almost like he has been freed by the appointment of Lampard, as he has been given freedom to express himself and be more positive in possession. Against Newcastle, he was one of the best players on the pitch, as he completed 34 of his 39 attacking third passes, showing that he could be incisive on the ball. Ajax will look to be dominant on Wednesday and the visitors need to be decisive in transition. The Italian international will be vital to the Blues’ chances in attack.
Ajax don’t have any major selection concerns ahead of this Champions League contest. The home side are expected to start with Ziyech, Quincy Promes and Dusan Tadic in attack. Lisandro Martinez will start and could be the next big talent to come through at the club.
Ross Barkley may not feature after coming off with an injury against Newcastle. N’Golo Kante, Antonio Rudiger and Emerson Palmieri are doubts. Andreas Christensen and Ruben Loftus-Cheek won’t be available.
This could be one of the more entertaining fixtures played in Europe this week, with both teams having exciting attacking line-ups. There will be goals and both sides will be confident of their chances. Ajax have forged a formidable reputation in the last 12 months and they are proving that they can still compete with the biggest clubs in Europe. They will see this as an opportunity to take another scalp, but the visitors have been much better than many predicted under Frank Lampard. A score draw looks to be a good bet.
Ajax 2-2 Chelsea