Chelsea's young team comes of age in hard-nosed, gritty win at Ajax

AMSTERDAM -- At the final whistle of Chelsea's 1-0 victory Wednesday at Ajax, Fikayo Tomori jumped three feet into the air, arms aloft, before running into the embrace of Kepa Arrizabalaga. An ecstatic Mason Mount joined them soon enough, sprinting from 40 yards away, and it did not take long before Chelsea's callow troops were all huddled together just outside their penalty area, collectively revelling in the success of a night that might prove deeply significant to this team's progress.

Make no mistake, this was the kind of victory that looked well beyond Frank Lampard's side in the season's early weeks. Anyone who watched them shipping four goals to Manchester United, or letting a 2-0 lead slip against Sheffield United, or getting involved in basketball-esque affairs at Norwich and Wolves, could hardly have imagined that they would come to the Amsterdam Arena, keep a clean sheet and -- not only that-- return to London with a richly deserved Champions League win. It feels like a landmark moment in their evolution; if not quite a coming of age, then a clear sign that these youngsters have the street smarts and dogged edge to go with the academy-honed slick passing and technical manoeuvres that can make them such a compelling watch.

Michy Batshuayi wheeled away in celebration after digging out a superbly taken late winner from a cutback by fellow substitute Christian Pulisic, but it was a moment of emotional release more than 40 minutes previously that captured the tone of Chelsea's night. Shortly before half-time, Ajax seemed likely to take the lead when Quincy Promes found an excellent position on the left side of the box. Then Cesar Azpilicueta, the visitors' captain, slid in to make a goal-saving challenge before producing an impassioned double fist-pump that left no doubt as to just how much that moment had mattered.

- Ratings: Batshuayi 8/10, Pulisic 7/10 in edging Ajax
- Who will qualify from the UCL group stage?
- O'Hanlon: Why Kante is one of football's most valuable

Azpilicueta is a senior professional, but that attitude coursed through Tomori, Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and their peers from the first whistle. During the second half, Hudson-Odoi, who had a slightly frustrating time of things going forward and missed a decent chance in the opening period, cynically fouled Edson Alvarez as he looked to break away in the centre circle. It might not seem a significant moment, but this was an 18-year-old winger, briefly marooned out of position, doing whatever it took to outdo his opponent in the manner of a grizzled hatchet man. It was an outlook that held last season's semifinalists at bay and left Lampard visibly delighted.

"It feels huge," Lampard said. "[That] always scares me because there's a lot to do, but I think we're entitled to be excited tonight about how we played. That's the blueprint. There are no excuses from now to dip from that."

Seven of Chelsea's matchday squad had never played Champions League football until this season. One of them, Reece James, came on toward the end and quickly found himself loudly chastised by Jorginho and Tomori -- the latter looking like such a leader already -- for not tucking in enough as the Premier League team sought to defend their advantage. James listened and did not make the same mistake twice -- this was a night where clarity and command resounded throughout the Chelsea ranks.

They navigated a few Ajax storms during the first hour -- surviving when Promes's first-half goal was ludicrously disallowed after VAR found he was a toenail's length offside, and standing rooted as Alvarez flicked a header against the post -- but drew their sting and looked the likelier winners by the time Batshuayi scored. The Belgium international had already missed a sitter after replacing Tammy Abraham; this time, with a slightly harder chance, he made no mistake after Pulisic's fine work.

"You have to give Christian huge credit," Lampard said of the U.S. international, who might just be starting to look comfortable in the blue shirt after two effective cameos in five days. "He looked so lively when he came on, and the assist is as important as the finish."

Lampard loved the fact that two replacements had made the difference. He was even happier that Chelsea have won six games in a row now and are gathering a formidable head of steam.

"I did believe we could reach the levels we are reaching," he said when asked if he could have foreseen this before the season. "I'm pleased with how quickly it's there at the moment and how much they want to win."

That was the key here. Ajax, shorn of players like Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs De Ligt and Lasse Schone from last season's stellar team, never looked as composed or convincing as they had in toppling Real Madrid and Juventus. Like Chelsea in the post-Eden Hazard era, they have lost some of their old stardust and have had to adapt accordingly. Unlike Chelsea, they could not pull tightly together in the most decisive moments and were not quite efficient enough at either end to make key players' quality tell.

"At the moment we're a strong group, which is more important than any of the individual players," Lampard said. As his rapidly maturing brood embraced beneath their delirious travelling support, it was easy to see how that philosophy could take Chelsea's blend of youth and experience further than they dared dream.