In the course of a mad 35 minutes, within a still crazier 90 at Stamford Bridge in November, Hakim Ziyech dismantled a young Chelsea side.
The Chelsea-Ajax scoreline had hurtled to 1-1 in the opening five minutes of the Champions League encounter. Then the coolest man on the pitch took over.
A teasing high cross from Ziyech, left-footed, angled in from the right, set up Quincy Promes’ header for 2-1 to the visitors.
Quarter of an hour later, from a wide free kick near the corner, he pulled out something from deep in his magician’s toolbox: an attempt with enough boomerang curl on it to strike the inside of Chelsea’s far post, Kepa Arrizabalaga misjudging the flight and connecting only when the ball ricocheted unfortunately off the goalkeeper’s face and across the goal-line. Chelsea 1, Ajax 3.
Ten minutes after half-time, Ziyech set up his team’s fourth goal, with a jink into space, a glance-up survey of options and a low cross to Donny van de Beek.
On such a charged, wild night, 4-1 was not likely to be the end of the story, and after two Ajax red cards, Chelsea staged a comeback, for a 4-4 draw that, by December, would turn out to be the difference between the London club qualifying for the next phase and Ajax dropping into the Europa League.
Some hard lessons were learned that evening by Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard about his players' inexperience, and how maturity need not stifle audacious skill: Ziyech stood out, as he had through Ajax’s compelling march to the Champions League semi-finals last season. And within barely half an hour at Stamford Bridge, he had produced more assists for goals than Jorginho, Chelsea’s midfield pass-master, has contributed in an entire season and a half in the Premier League.
Now the final details of his transfer from Ajax are all but agreed, with Chelsea announcing on Thursday a deal had been reached, Ziyech will be setting up, and scoring, goals in the Premier League as of August, a deal worth around €40 million (Dh160m) to the Dutch champions settled, subject to the formality of personal terms.
Ajax have seen this coming. Ziyech’s move to a more competitive league than the Eredivisie had been anticipated for some time. He was Footballer of the Year in the Netherlands in 2017-18, and to appear on that honours board, as the likes of Luis Suarez, Gini Wijnaldum and Jan Vertonghen have in the last decade, very often signals an imminent move to English football.
Ziyech has the potential to have as much impact as Suarez did at Liverpool, and to be as thrilling a Chelsea capture as Eden Hazard became. His appeal to Lampard and the club’s strategists is plain. Ziyech, at 26, would bring knowhow to a forward line that is already exciting but whose starlets have had limited exposure to the toughest stages.
There is a strong likelihood that relative veterans like Willian, Pedro and the marginalised Olivier Giroud will leave Chelsea in the summer. Faith will be maintained in up-and-comings such as Tammy Abraham, 22, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount, both 21, and 19-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Ziyech, a Europa League finalist in 2017, creative fulcrum in Ajax’s sensational 2019 Champions League run and holder of 32 caps for Morocco - whom he chose to play for ahead of Holland, where he was born - has it in him to lead them.
He can be a role model, too, about how to keep focus. Ziyech had difficulties in his youth, growing up as the youngest of nine children and losing his father to illness at the age of 10. By his own admission, he lost direction and discipline in his teens, but recovered his bearings.
“He has not had it easy,” said Herve Renard, who coached a Morocco team built around on Ziyech, after the two of them had overcome a falling-out, at the last World Cup. “But he is a well-balanced guy, and a superb player who is getting better and better.”
On his best days, Ziyech’s skill in one-on-one duels makes him one of the game’s most watchable talents. Lampard will have noted the precision of his passing, and his gift for delivering an accurate dead-ball. Chelsea’s low yield of goals from set-pieces has been taken as a sign of their youthful naivety in this, Lampard’s first season in charge.
Should the transfer be completed as expected, Ziyech would be the first major new signing under Lampard’s watch, Chelsea having been restricted because of a Fifa sanction from registering new players last summer.
The January window then passed without a significant recruit. Chelsea wanted Ziyech then, but were prepared to wait when Ajax, who will miss him, insisted he stay another six months.