Chelsea’s Champions League campaign has its ignition point and so does the managerial tenure of Graham Potter. It feels strange to think that this was only his third match in charge of the club following his appointment on 8 September, the first having been the 1-1 draw here against Salzburg.
That 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 victory in the competition, everything came together, the blue shirts pouring forward from all angles; Milan chased out of west London, fortunate not to have taken a serious beating.
As it was, it still felt chastening. Apart from the eye-catching Rafael Leão, Milan offered nothing and they were heading for defeat when Wesley Fofana opening the scoring following a poorly defended corner midway through the first half.
Potter has had to feel his way into the role on the training ground but he could delight at how his players mapped the moves from Cobham on to the big stage. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang added the second and it was a night when pretty much everybody impressed although it was Reece James – as so often – who was the dominant figure. It was fitting that he scored the third, slammed high into the near corner after a Raheem Sterling assist.
Chelsea’s last-gasp Premier League win at Crystal Palace on Saturday had been a tonic. Now there was the demand to build a little momentum, to get at a Milan defence which had been stripped of the No 1 goalkeeper, Mike Maignan, and three of the regular back four – Davide Calabria, Simon Kjær and Theo Hernández.
Do not obsess about formations. They are different in and out of possession. Flexibility is the name of the game. But, at the same time, it is difficult not to with Potter. Having played 4-2-2-2 at Palace, he went back to a back three here and, further forward, the idea was to work Sterling and Mason Mount in spaces; they were the No 10s in a 3-4-2-1. And to have James and Ben Chilwell provide the width and thrust.
Mount worked Ciprian Tatarusanu early on after a Aubameyang layoff that initially looked a little undercooked. Chelsea started solidly and they got better, taking a grip on the tie following a flurry of set pieces midway through the first half – four of them to precise, each bringing a free header and worry lines for Stefano Pioli, the Milan manager. How was this happening? Serie A champions ought never be so loose.
From the fourth, a Chilwell corner, Thiago Silva – as he had done twice previously – unloaded his header, which was pushed out by Tatarusanu and from there, it was a scramble. Aubameyang put himself about, so did Ruben Loftus-Cheek and, when the ball broke, it did so kindly for Fofana, who rolled home.
Chelsea might have been out of sight by the interval. Their approach work was slick and they got through the Milan backline, Mount saw a shot blocked after James had combined with Sterling to pull the ball back. Mount then had the ball in the net after a nice finish but had strayed offside while Sterling went close on a quick break.
Milan’s threat was advertised at the outset by Leão, their fast rising star – an uncommon blend of explosiveness and strength. His first involvement had been to blast away from a clutch of blue shirts and he made it clear that he intended to do it again and again. Chelsea needed Silva to stretch into an excellent slide 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, the alarm bells ringing loudly. Charles De Ketelaere prodded goalwards and, when Kepa Arrizabalaga – who kept his place ahead of the fit-again Édouard Mendy – patted the ball out, Rade Krunic had to score. From point-blank range, he lifted high – a massive let-off for Chelsea.
There was needle, some bad challenges, with those from Krunic and Fode Ballo-Touré in the first half fully meriting their yellow cards. But there did not appear to have been much in the tussle between Fofana and Leão that saw the former forced off on 38 minutes. The frustration for the goalscorer was intense.
Chelsea wanted a second to allow themselves to breath a little more easily. They deserved it because of the exuberance of their play and they got it before the hour after they had played their way up Milan’s left-hand side. Chilwell’s cross was too deep but when James returned the ball from the other side, Aubameyang gave Fikayo Tomori the slip all too easily to finish. Tomori was left to perform a despairing lunge; it was a horror moment for the Chelsea youth product.
That was pretty much that in terms of the result. Chelsea, though, wanted more.