Frank Lampard has lived through some thrilling nights of Champions League football – few though, one imagines, will have been quite as a dramatic as this.
The prize at stake, the consequences of winning and losing finals and semi-finals, were greater no doubt. By comparison, a group stage scrap over qualifying for the last 16 that ends without resolution, must seem quite mundane.
The manner in which this game played out however – with Kepa Arrizabalaga the hero of the night, and then its stooge, and what should have been a winning goal first disallowed and then awarded after an enormous VAR delay – was compelling stuff. Chelsea could certainly have won but also lost given Valencia’s chances. Instead they will in all likelihood progress by beating Lille at home in the final game; a complication that would have been unnecessary were it not for a horrible error that earned Valencia a point.
Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga went from hero to zero after Daniel Wass’ mis-hit cross sailed over him and into the net
Wass celebrates after equalising for Chelsea in the final 10 minutes of the thrilling encounter at the Mestalla on Wednesday
Blues goalkeeper Arrizabalaga saves Daniel Parejo’s second-half penalty to maintain Chelsea’s lead in Champions League tie
That was the equaliser that was. The winner that wasn’t, and then was, and then wasn’t a winner after all, came after 53 minutes when a cross from N’Golo Kante was knocked down by Kurt Zouma. Christian Pulisic pounced on it to score from close range but was immediately flagged offside. At which point the VAR check kicked in, with referee Felix Zwayer stalked around the penalty area by a delegation of protesting Valencia players, led by centre-half Ezequiel Garay. Wherever he went, they went, even though the decision was now out of his hands.
Three minutes became four. Chelsea lined up to face a goal kick. And then the clarification came. Pulisic was onside. Now Zwayer was not stalked but chased. Finally, he summoned the courage to do what he should have done earlier. He booked Garay. That stopped it. He should have booked more.
Were the officials weak again for the penalty? There certainly appeared minimal contact between Jorginho and Jose Gaya and Zwayer was some distance away but very keen to give it. No clear and obvious mistake VAR decreed, so Daniel Parejo stepped up, hit hard, high and left and Arrizabalaga pulled off the most stupendous save. Did it compensate for what followed, though? Not really. Chelsea should be through now. Combined with the injury to Tammy Abraham – who went to hospital having landed awkwardly – this was a costly night.
Christian Pulisic put Chelsea ahead following half-time after the Video Assistant Referee eventually ruled him to be onside
N’Golo Kante’s ball into the box was nodded on by Kurt Zouma for Pulisic who was onside by the smallest of margins
Chelsea players celebrate with Pulisic after he scored their second goal of the game just five minutes after the restart
Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic equalises for the visitors moments after the Blues went behind late on in the first half
Kovacic is surrounded by his Chelsea team-mates after getting the Blues back on level terms in the 41st minute of the game
Valencia’s Carlos Soler celebrates after opening the scoring against Chelsea in the 40th minute of the Champions League tie
Soler celebrates scoring the opening goal with his Valencia team-mates in the first 45 minutes of the clash at the Mestalla
Valencia’s Jasper Cillessen (centre) produces a spectacular save to keep out Tammy Abraham’s effort in the first half
Chelsea suffered an injury blow in Spain as striker Abraham had to be substituted towards end of the first half
Frank Lampard would not have appreciated Valencia’s opening goal. He would, however, have recognised the method and execution. It was the type of goal he once scored, for Chelsea. The same intent, directness, eye for the opportunity. Rodrigo was afforded too much time and space on the right, enough to whip in a dangerous cross. Carlos Soler, a midfielder who starts wide on the left but comes inside at every opportunity, was the beneficiary.
He was late, with the benefit he could identify the gaps in Chelsea’s resistance and gamble on where the ball would arrive. He aimed for the six yard box, as a certain former Chelsea midfield player used to. It’s a devilishly hard run to pick up, as Lampard knows, and when Soler met the ball first time it gave Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga no chance, despite getting a hand to it.
Having enjoyed the best of the possession if not the chances in the first-half, Lampard must have felt sick. Fortunately, Valencia are flaky, a mid-table La Liga team whose limitations showed in the way they refused to press Chelsea, dropping off, dropping deep, seeking safety in massed, banked numbers. On this occasion they were well equipped to deal with a Cesar Azpilicueta ball into the area, which appeared to be repelled by two heads at once. The ball looped out and fell to Mateo Kovacic who returned it, a low shot to the near post that didn’t look up to much but defeated goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and crept in, his first for the club.
Valencia’s Maxi Gomez misses a great chance to break the deadlock from close range in the first half on Wednesday evening
Chelsea’s Willian heads the ball over the bar after meeting a dangerous cross into the penalty area at the back post
Forward Gomez was denied from opening the scoring by a fantastic save by Blues goalkeeper Arrizabalaga
Until that point, Chelsea had looked the better team, Valencia the likelier to score. Maxi Lopez missed two of the clearest chances a striker could possibly have land at his feet. He was a target for West Ham this summer. Let’s hope the recruitment department is playing closer attention than they did with goalkeeper Roberto.
The first opportunity came on 19 minutes, a period Chelsea had dominated. Rodrigo again, from the right, the ball picked out Lopez perfectly at the far post as if flew across goal. Arrizabalaga was nowhere. No Chelsea player was anywhere of use really. Lopez had the goal at his mercy. Had he missed his kick it would have been embarrassing; had he got a boot stuck in the turf and fallen over it would have been humiliating. Lopez kicked the air and fell over. Buster Keaton made a career out of that.
The second chance was marginally better in as much as he connected with the ball this time, but it was a fabulous opportunity and there should have nothing Arrizabalaga could do to prevent it. Instead, he sent it out for a corner.
Chelsea had their chances, too, but will have been more concerned with the injury to Tammy Abraham that happened before half-time. He jumped for a ball and landed awkwardly, perhaps on the leg of another player. Limping around the side of the pitch, he eventually climbed on a stretcher and was carried down the tunnel. It didn’t look good.
Chelsea winger Christian Pulisic tries to latch onto a ball over the top during the opening 45 minutes at the Mestalla
Chelsea midfielder Jorginho picked up an early booking in the Champions League Group H clash against Valencia
Blues goalkeeper Kepa (third right) takes control and claims the ball following a cross by Valencia into the box
Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta (left) vies with Valencia defender Jaume Costa during the opening exchanges of the match
Chelsea manager Frank Lampard issues instructions to his side from the touchline during a tight first half at the Mestalla