If there is a theme to be taken from this evening’s Champions League encounter between Chelsea and Ajax, it would very much be one of youth. Both Blues boss Frank Lampard and his opposite number Erik ten Hag are very much advocates of bringing players through the age-group system, although it has been somewhat forced on the former by a transfer ban and on the latter by the fact that, well, that’s just how Ajax do things. The Dutch side rode the wave of youth all the way to the semi-final of this tournament last season, before Spurs managed to deliver an incredible comeback. Ten Hag’s reward for this impressive feat was to see his best defender and most promising midfielder sold on for a combined total of €150million.
For Chelsea, the experiment with youth in the dugout and on the pitch is, as of right now, paying off. Whether it will be maintained should their appeal against the transfer ban be upheld, no-one knows. What we do know is that the sky hasn’t fallen in at Stamford Bridge since a 41-year-old manager included the likes of Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fiyako Tomori in the first-team squad rather than loaning them out again. Chelsea are actually fractionally worse off in the Premier League table than they were a year ago, but it’s clear they’re now finding a groove for which they spent the entirety of the 2018/19 season looking.
Two fine attacks, but goals not guaranteed
While Ajax 2019 may not be precisely the Total Football creation of the Johan Cruijff days, there’s no doubt that – even after selling some key players – they’re a joy to watch. Attacking playmaker Quincy Promes has rattled in ten goals in all competitions since his summer move from Sevilla, while striker Dusan Tadic has maintained the hit rate that helped carry the side so far last year. Add to this the fact that Chelsea’s attack has been humming along nicely, with Abraham firing nine of their 25 league goals in eleven games, and this has the potential to be a shootout.
That being said, it had similar potential a fortnight ago when Chelsea landed in Amsterdam, and that game ended up being decided by its only goal. Blues’ supersub forward Michy Batshuayi notched five minutes from time to give the visitors a 1-0 win. Tonight, there is every chance that the teams will fight out a similarly tightly-fought game. Grosvenor’s odds of 7/5 on the total goals being below 2.5 seem pretty kind in the circumstances, as the sides are likely to be cautious this evening in the knowledge that one slip here could hand their rivals pole position in the group.
Christian fundamental to Chelsea’s plan
Thanks to the paperwork having been completed before the ban entered into force, Chelsea did bring in one player for a fee in the summer – USA international Christian Pulisic arriving from Dortmund for an amount in excess of £50million. Up until recently, he’s spent most of his time on the bench, but Pulisic was absolutely ready when Lampard gave him his chance to shine. A hat-trick against Burnley on his first league start since August was followed last weekend by a key goal in a 2-1 win over Watford. There are already clear signs that the winger may be the best footballer the States have ever turned out, and he’s just 21 years of age.
Of course, the honour of “best U.S. player ever” comes with the fairly hefty caveat that it essentially means “this guy is better than Landon Donovan”, which sounds less impressive. Nonetheless, Pulisic was one of the best players in Germany during his time in the Bundesliga and is showing signs of having acclimatised to the English game. You can get an Enhanced Odds price of 9/1 at William Hill on him scoring the first goal this evening, and if Lampard gives him the start – as he surely will – then the Hershey-born youngster could provide a sweet finish.
Home (dis)advantage to play a part again?
One of the standout factors of Chelsea’s season so far has been their away form. Apart from an opening-day visit to Old Trafford when they were trounced 4-0, their best performances have generally come on the road; it’s at Stamford Bridge that points have been dropped in draws against Leicester and Sheffield United, and with a defeat against Liverpool. In Europe, likewise; their one home game so far saw Lampard’s side beaten at the hands of Valencia, while away trips to Lille and Ajax themselves have delivered three points each. It seems fairly clear that their ebullient attacking style fares better when the opposition is forced by circumstance to come at them and leave gaps.
Ajax won’t have missed that detail, and could make it a very frustrating evening by not playing into Chelsea’s hands – although it would be a surprise if this young, skilful side came to defend. Taking into account that a draw wouldn’t be the worst result for either side, it might well be worth backing that outcome at 31/20 with BetVictor, especially if the home side once again find it harder to deliver in front of their own fans than they have been doing on their travels. A share of the points tonight would put both sides on the cusp of the next round, and that’s what we’re backing.