A flying visit to Amsterdam was second on Chelsea’s pre-season agenda, with the itinerary surrounding Friday’s match with Ajax demanding a twelve-hour round trip.
The mood in the camp on the flight home may be a rather damp one after Carlo Ancelotti’s boys (and they were boys) fell to a 3-1 defeat against their Champions League opponents.
An own goal from Jeffrey Bruma put the hosts ahead in the sixth minute, but Daniel Sturridge equalised midway through the first half.
Minutes later, however, a howler from Ross Turnbull allowed Siem de Jong to restore the lead, and the seal was put on the result in stoppage time when Korean forward Suk Hyun-Jun added a third.
With Petr Cech and Alex joining Michael Mancienne, Yuri Zhirkov, Jose Bosingwa and Yossi Benayoun on the injury list, Ancelotti’s squad took on an even younger look, with 17 year-old Rohan Ince the only new face in the squad.
Two changes were made to the team which started at Crystal Palace, with Turnbull donning the keeper’s gloves, and Billy Clifford – another 17 year-old – coming in at right back.
Jeffrey Bruma moved into his preferred role in the heart of the defence, where he would be partnered by fellow Dutchman Patrick van Aanholt.
Whilst the visitors featured five teenagers, Martin Jol’s side lined up with eight internationals, a reflection of the stage they are at ahead of Champions League Qualifying.
World Cup trio Maarten Stekelenburg, Christian Eriksen and Eyong Enoh started, but the likes of Gregory van der Wiel and Luis Suárez were afforded the same rest as Chelsea’s South African performers.
In front of roughly 20,000 fans at the end of Ajax’s open day, the pace was languid and slow, with neither side keen to show much urgency.
Nonetheless, a lead was taken after just six minutes. A wicked ball from the right left Bruma and Turnbull uncertain, and the Dutch Under-21 international flicked the ball away from his goalkeeper and into the back of the net in trying to clear.
Ajax looked settled by the goal and had the better of the next ten minutes but Chelsea kept themselves composed and were able to get back on terms halfway through the first period.
Neat approach play from Sturridge and Di Santo gave the former possession 25 yards from goal. He struck the ball clean and low, and it beat Stekelenburg inside his left-hand post. It was a fantastic finish.
Unfortunately, parity lasted a matter of moments. Stekelenburg’s hopeful punt upfield appeared to be running tamely through to Turnbull, who had to backtrack his ground, having judged the ball poorly.
As it ran towards the edge of the area he tried to secure possession, but in fear of taking it outside of his area, could only palm it towards de Jong, who rolled the ball past Bruma’s despairing lunge and into the open goal.
It’s not the first time Turnbull has appeared calamitous in a Chelsea shirt and won’t have helped his chances of starting the season as Cech’s deputy.
An unlikely flurry of activity looked to have shocked both teams back into their previously comatose states, with the remainder of the half only notable for a strong run and cross by Clifford which left Ajax defenders uncertain as to how to deal with it.
Three changes arrived at the break, with Hilário replacing Turnbull as expected, whilst Scott Sinclair and 15 year-old Nathaniel Chalobah entered the fray for Clifford and McEachran.
For schoolboy Chalobah, this was another giant leap, having played ten minutes at centre-back against a young Palace team a week ago. Now, he was at right-back against a European powerhouse.
It was Hilário who had work to do in saving Marvin Zeegelaar’s shot some fifteen minutes into the second half, and both teams began looking towards further options from their respective benches.
Lalkovic, Ince, Cork and Conor Clifford all took to the field, leaving just Kaby unused, whilst van Aanholt limped off with an impact injury to his leg. It didn’t appear to be particularly serious, and he was perhaps taken off as a mere precaution.
Sinclair had a brief sight of goal which amounted to nothing, but in stoppage time Suk tapped in Bonavacia’s cross at the far post after a neat build-up to make it 3-1 seconds before the final whistle ended proceedings.
The game rarely moved out of first gear, but will have served a purpose for both clubs. Chelsea afforded full matches to Matic, Sturridge, Bruma and Bertrand, whilst Mikel and Essien played considerable time, and general fitness looks better approaching the start of the season.
The back four which finished the match (Chalobah-Bruma-Ince-Bertrand) had an average age of just 18.5 years and for the most part looked comfortable, with Chalobah in particular putting in a decent showing.
There are questions to ask, but pre-season is what it is. Over the next week, the senior professionals will return and some of the younger contingent will disperse into Steve Holland’s reserve set-up, but they’ll be richer for this experience.
Chelsea: Turnbull (Hilario 45); B Clifford (Chalobah h-t), Bruma, Bertrand, Van Aanholt (Ince 64); Mikel (C Clifford 83); Essien (c) (Cork 73), Matic; McEachran (Sinclair 45); Sturridge, Di Santo (Lalkovic 64)