Heading into their final Champions League Group H matches this week, Chelsea and Valencia each trailed group leader Ajax by two points.
By the time Tuesday’s games were over, though, both clubs had leapfrogged last year’s semifinalists and into next year’s knockout stage, with Valencia’s 1-0 upset victory — in Amsterdam — unceremoniously dumping Ajax out of the competition.
Chelsea also needed a win to guarantee its spot in the knockout stage of the world’s top club competition, and got it by beating Lille 2-1.
The French side arrived in London having managed just a single point from its first five Champions League games this season, but Frank Lampard’s team certainly didn’t look like it was taking anything for granted when the match kicked off, with the Blues all over the visitors from the opening whistle at Stamford Bridge.
It was one-way traffic well before Chelsea took the lead via Tammy Abraham in the 19th minute. American Christian Pulisic — who would receive a standing ovation from the home fans when he was subbed out of the game midway through the second half — started the sequence that resulted in the opener, with Willian making the final pass for Abraham to tap home from the doorstep (via Turner Sports):
By the time captain Cesar Azpilicueta doubled the Blues’ advantage a little more than 15 minutes later, the outcome seemed inevitable. And while already-eliminated Lille — which was forced to sub two starters (including goalkeeper Mike Maignan) because of injury — made the final minutes of the contest interesting after former Chelsea striker Loic Remy scored late in the second half, the hosts hung on and claimed the three points.
About 200 miles to the northeast at Johan Cruyff Arena, things most definitely didn’t go as expected. Valencia faced a daunting task heading into the match against four-time European champion Ajax, but a 24th-minute strike from Spanish national team forward Rodrigo somehow stood up as the game-winning goal:
It came completely against the run of play and stunned the young hosts, who never really recovered afterward despite having plenty of time to respond. But while Ajax controlled close to 70 percent of possession the rest of the way and fired 17 shots toward keeper Jaume Domenech’s net, the execution was non-existent. They forced Domenech to make just a paltry three saves.
Ajax also couldn’t capitalize on a red card to Valencia defender Gabriel Paulista, as it came too late, in second-half stoppage time. And now Ajax is out, left to grapple with how it happened while Chelsea and Valencia look forward to Friday’s knockout stage draw, where both clubs will learn who they’ll face in the Round of 16.
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