Frank Lampard has received plenty of plaudits for the way he has blooded Chelsea’s youngsters this season, but he knows they are facing the masters of youth development in Amsterdam on Wednesday.
The Blues, featuring academy graduates Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James and Fikayo Tomori, have racked up five consecutive wins in all competitions and climbed into the top four after Saturday’s victory over Newcastle.
However, Ajax have long been famed for their youth policy and last season that exuberance swept them all the way to the semi-finals of the Champions League, where they were agonisingly pipped by Tottenham.
Chelsea have been building up their academy in recent years and this season, in part because of their transfer ban, it has borne fruit.
But Lampard, speaking ahead of their Champions League Group H clash in the stadium named after Ajax and Holland’s favourite football son Johan Cruyff, said: “There’s a long way to go to claim there are similarities.
“We have pride in the short term, but we shouldn’t get carried away. It’s great, the good feeling at the club in terms of the young players that have come through.
“But we are in a place here steeped in history of bringing young players through, creating great teams with groups of young players, and we have a long way to go to do that.
“What Ajax did last year was incredible, to get as far as they did with such a young team.
“I think you see my belief in our young players because even though everyone says we had a transfer ban and it’s the only option I had, that’s not true. I have lots of options in the squad.
“The young players have shown they should play and I believe in them. But it just the beginning of the road.”
Ross Barkley did not travel after turning his ankle against Newcastle on Saturday, and N’Golo Kante is still recovering from a groin problem.
“They’re not here,” said Lampard. “Ross will hopefully be fit to train by the time we get back on Thursday. N’Golo is training but we’ll see how he is for the weekend, we’re not clear on that yet.”
Ajax boss Erik Ten Hag says he has a different team but the same ambition.
Ajax have since lost key players Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt, but that has not stopped them starting the new campaign unbeaten in 10 domestic matches, winning eight, and beginning the Champions League with impressive 3-0 victories over Lille and Valencia.
“Last year was last year and now we are building a new team and developing a new team,” Ten Hag said.
“We started the season very well and now we have to step up. We are getting better game by game.
“Sometimes you fall down but then you step up again, get better and develop, and that’s only possible when you play with your philosophy and you want to get better every day.
“Last season was last season, we have to forget that. We live in the now. Now we have to perform.
“This team is a different team. Different also in tactics. It is normal because we lose players and the players we get in are different.
“Every player has his own identity. We are playing a little different, but still with a strong team who I can believe can develop and can be very successful.”
Ajax’s former Manchester United defender Daley Blind has faced off with Chelsea a few times in his career, and he will be out to stop Abraham continuing his fine start to the season.
“I have several good memories of facing Chelsea, they were always big games,” said Blind.
“Eden Hazard the last few years was an attractive player to watch but he’s not there now. They have a different team, with lots of young players who are doing well. It’s good to see that.
“Now Abraham is doing very well, he’s a good striker who is scoring goals. But I am preparing as always, not just for their striker, but for the entire team.”