Chelsea-Ajax made absolutely no sense

The weirdest game of the Champions League this year featured own goals, center backs doing stepovers, and two red cards in two minutes.

Chelsea’s Champions League game against Ajax began as an ordinary football match, and ended as a gigantic flaming pile of extreme, unsafe nonsense. Let’s go point by point (U.K. video here).

0-1 — Abraham (og), 2’

The line between “unfortunate accident” and “total goalkeeping humiliation” is a thin one. Here, Kepa Arrizabalaga’s night got off to a dreadful start, but since Tammy Abraham managed to get a scintilla of a smidge of a shadow of a suggestion of a touch to the ball, it goes down as an own goal. Bad luck everybody. Just one of those things.

1-1 — Jorginho (p), 4’

Takes a lovely penalty, doesn’t he? Ambles up, rolls the ball into the space where the keeper definitely isn’t, ambles off. Inspirational or infuriating, depending on what colour shirt you’re wearing.

Just reward for a penalty that Ajax were so desperate to give away that they had two swipes at it, Nicolás Tagliafico finishing the job where Joël Veltman couldn’t get it done. Both were driven by a hatred of Christian Pulisic shared only by Frank Lampard. That joke would have worked a couple of weeks ago, but we’re not updating our material just because somebody can’t stick to their principles.

1-1 — Abraham, 14’ (goal disallowed)

Foreshadowing, thy name is Tammy.

1-2 — Promes, 20’

Thinking about it, it’s a bit weird that Chelsea are playing penalty box predator Cesar Azpilicueta in defence. No wonder he lost his man here.

1-3 — Arrizabalaga (og), 35’

This was probably the clearest warning sign that this match, already odd, was building up for something truly special.

There is, of course, something grotesquely and fundamentally unfair about such own goals. The posts, the crossbar: these are supposed to be neutral arbiters. Here to tell you what is and isn’t a goal, and nothing more. To see one of these notionally impartial auditors suddenly break ranks and hurl the ball into the keeper’s face, for no apparent reason beyond “Hey, this’ll be funny!”, is frankly shocking; like seeing Lady Justice peek out from under the blindfold, then slide a counterweight onto the pan of her scales.

But on the other hand, it was very funny. There is a purity to the emergent farce that emerges from live sport: when the very best in the world are undone by a sudden, unexpected clatter of perfectly-timed physics. In this case, it was compounded by Arrizabalaga’s brave and ultimately futile attempt to do the traditional post-own-goal face — “focus, it’s okay, I’m okay, we’ve got this” — while it was clear to all that his nose really, really, really hurt.

Chelsea-Ajax made absolutely no sense
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images


Let’s think about this. It seems fair to suggest that Kurt Zouma could have pulled this off. He’d already barged most of the length of the pitch and essayed a flurry of stepovers that surprised everybody, himself included. And he still had the ball. He just had to find the top corner, and we’d have had the greatest, stupidest, most delirious goal in the history of the game.

On the other, we’d have had to call it off — all of it, the whole sport — and go and do something else with our time. Get into crochet, or model railways, or cricket. No more footballing worlds left to conquer. Would it have been worth it?


1-4 — van de Beek, 55’

Ajax’s only “normal” goal, this one; nice movement or poor defending, then a tidy finish or some weak goalkeeping. Delete according to preference. BORING.

2-4 — Azpilicueta, 63’

Ah, now. This is more like it. Freed from his defensive prison by parlous circumstances, Azpilicueta gets back to what he does best: lurking inside the opposition’s six-yard box. He is positively lethal from five inches.

You get a card, and you get a card

And this is the point at which the game comes fully unmoored from the ordinary passage of reality, and floats off into the upper atmosphere, where the air is thin, where stars glitter, and where dreams drift downwards from heaven.

Two red cards! Two. One moment you’re watching one game, the next you’re watching something entirely other. And all it took was a man in a yellow t-shirt waving some stiff paper around.

Were both decisions harsh? Well, maybe. Not a great tackle; definitely a handball. You can see why the referee made the calls he did; equally, you can see why Ajax’s players were so exercised by the whole thing. Hell of an advantage, ref.

3-4 — Jorginho (p), 71’

A delightful lesson here in how the presentation of a familiar object in radically different circumstances can transform the original object. At the beginning of the game, the Jorginho penalty was slick and admirable. Here, in the midst of this roiling six-goal two-red Kurt-Flippin-Zouma game, it’s an almost superhuman act of self-control. Ordinary humans would have fallen to the floor in gibbering panic before they even made it to the ball.

4-4 — James, 74’

The goal frame giveth, and the goal frame taketh away. Admittedly, Reece James’ right foot had more to do than Arrizabalaga’s head, but that’s a lovely little assist from the crossbar. Takes the keeper out of the game, then sets it up beautifully.

(And look who’s lurking in the six-yard box, just in case? That’s right. Azpilicueta. Always sniffing.)

4-4 — Azpilicueta, 78’ (goal disallowed)

Perhaps this is the only way that this game could end. For all the worries that VAR is inserting itself into the very moments that make football special, a cold shower all over the post-goal jouissance, it’s good to know that when things are properly chaotic, everybody just forgets about it.

There goes the goal machine: kissing the armband, sliding on his belly, leading his team in a charge to the corner flag. Does it even matter that the goal gets ruled out? It’s a Champions League group game, after all; two points here and there might not mean anything. Sure, they can take the goal away. But the happiness happens. It lingers, even when it’s gone. Perhaps you can enjoy it, even though you’re not supposed to.

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