Chelsea’s Champions League campaign has its flashpoint, and so has Graham Potter’s tenure in charge. It feels strange to think that this was only his third game at the club following his appointment on September 8, the first being a 1-1 draw here against Red Bull Salzburg.
It had been a strange jumble of emotions in the wake of the loss at Dinamo Zagreb and Thomas Tuchel’s sacking. But with Chelsea desperately needing a win in the competition, everything came together, the blue shirts pouring forth from all angles; Milan chased out of west London, lucky to escape a serious beating.
It was still discipline. There is a special kind of event glamor when it comes to Milan – the cool shirts; the sight of Paolo Maldini, the technical director, strolling along the touchline before kick-off. Clarence Seedorf, the former Milan midfielder, was here as a media expert – alongside Chelsea icon Gianfranco Zola in front of the press box.
But apart from the electricity generated every time Rafael Leão got the ball and started running, Milan offered nothing and it was certainly jarring to see the champions of Italy defend so generously. The die was cast when Wesley Fofana opened the scoring midway through the first half from a poorly defended corner and then Chelsea threatened to run riot.
Potter has had to settle into the role on the training ground and he was delighted with how his players mapped the moves from Cobham to the big stage. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang added the second and it was a night where pretty much everyone impressed. Thiago Silva was perfect in defence, while Mateo Kovacic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek ran the midfield. But as so often, it was Reece James who was the dominant figure.
The right wing-back ran the team, a threat for Milan with his surges and deliveries. It was his cross that ate Aubameyang up and it was fitting that he sealed one of Chelsea’s best wins for some time with the third goal, which slammed high inside the near post after a Raheem Sterling- passing. It was James that the TV cameras followed at full time, the one that the home crowd greeted in song.
Chelsea had flickered at the start against a Milan defense missing No.1 goalkeeper Mike Maignan and three of the regular back four – Davide Calabria, Simon Kjær and Theo Hernández.
Mason Mount extended Ciprian Tatarusanu but it was after a flurry of set-pieces midway through the first half that Chelsea took control – four of them on target, each bringing a free header and lines of concern for Stefano Pioli, the Milan manager. How did this happen?
From the fourth, a Ben Chilwell corner, Silva – as he had done twice before – unloaded his header which was pushed out by Tatarusanu and from there it was a scramble. Aubameyang repositioned himself, as did Loftus-Cheek, and when the ball broke it was kind to Fofana, who rolled it home.
Chelsea were well balanced in Potter’s 3-4-2-1 system; Sterling and Mount find places as the No.10s, James and Chilwell offer width and drive. They could have been out of sight in the interval.
Mount saw a shot blocked after James combined with Sterling to pull back, and Mount also had the ball in the net after a fine finish but had strayed offside. Sterling also went close on a fast break.
Milan’s threat came entirely through Leão, their fast-rising star – an uncommon blend of explosiveness and strength. His first involvement had been to blast away from a collection of blue shirts and he made it clear that he intended to do it again and again. Chelsea needed Silva to stretch into a superb sliding challenge on him in the 19th minute after Fofana had been caught on the ball.
What a run it was that Leão produced in first-half stoppage time, taking him past four Chelsea players, and the alarm bells were ringing loudly. Charles De Ketelaere ran away with a goal and when Kepa Arrizabalaga – who held his place ahead of the fit Édouard Mendy – patted the ball out, Rade Krunic had to score. From point blank range, his shot went high. It was a huge break for Chelsea.
There were needles, some bad challenges and those of Krunic and Fodé Ballo-Touré in the first half deserved their yellow cards. But there didn’t seem to have been much in the match between Fofana and Leão, which saw the former forced off after 38 minutes. The frustration for the goalscorer was intense.
Chelsea deserved another goal to allow themselves to breathe easier and it came on 56 minutes when James crossed and Aubameyang let Fikayo Tomori off all too easily. Tomori was left to make a desperate lunge; it was a moment of horror for Chelsea’s youth product. That was it in terms of the result. But after Sterling volleyed high, James brought the flourish.