Milan late show keeps them in distant contact with Napoli’s ‘Martians’ | Serie A

It was the 91st minute at San Siro when Milan scored the goal that might have rescued the Serie A title race. Technically the Fiorentina defender Nicola Milenkovic scored it for them – deflecting Aster Vranckx’s cross into his own net – but few were dwelling on the fine details as Zombie Nation’s Kernkraft 400, a German dance track older than some players on the pitch, blared out across the public address.

A crowd of 73,000 danced and sighed with relief. Milenkovic’s own goal secured a 2-1 win and kept Milan ‘only’ eight points behind Napoli at the top. The league leaders hold a double-digit advantage over every other side in the division heading into the World Cup break.

Napoli deserve every bit of their advantage, having played the best football in Italy this season by a distance. On Saturday they collected their 11th consecutive league win, beating Udinese 3-2 in a game less close than that scoreline implies. They were three goals up after an hour against opponents who had previously beaten Roma 4-0 and Inter 3-1.

It was yet another occasion to marvel at the outlandish talent of Victor Osimhen. He scored the first goal with a piece of classic centre-forward play, attacking the space behind his marker and glancing a header home from Eljif Elmas’s cross. The timing of his run and leap were everything. Osimhen appeared a foot taller than Jaka Bijol; in truth, he stands a couple of inches shorter.

Napoli’s second goal was a scintillating team move, Piotr Zielinski playing the ball out from the left corner of his own penalty box and finding Osimhen in the middle of the park. The forward turned and took two Udinese players with him as he drove toward the right wing before wrongfooting them with a no-look backheel to Hirving Lozano.

He, in turn, angled inwards before switching play back to Zielinski, who had run the length of the pitch. The Polish midfielder took one touch to wrongfoot the player tracking him and another to settle the ball before sweeping a shot into the bottom right corner of the net.

That was the 31st minute, and Elmas added a third goal for Napoli in the 58th, converting André-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s through-pass after beating Bijol one-on-one. Still, Napoli came forward, and only some sharp saves by the Udinese goalkeeper Marco Silvestri kept the margin at three.

Luciano Spalletti and Victor Osimhen, Napoli coach and striker.
Coach and star striker, Luciano Spalletti and Victor Osimhen, touch in as Napoli sign off with 41 points. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Udinese’s counter-punch did not arrive until the 79th minute, though it was another goal to marvel at. Roberto Pereyra chipped the ball in from the left, Isaac Success weighted a pass just right with his chest and Ilija Nestorovski drilled a first-time half-volley into the bottom of the net.

Three minutes later, Udinese scored again. Kim Min-Jae blundered to get caught in possession by Lazar Samardzic, who punished the mistake fully with a ruthless finish. A quick-fire double might have induced panic in a less confident side. Napoli calmly steadied the ship and sailed home. Udinese managed one further shot in the game, and that from outside the box.

Quick Guide

Serie A results


Empoli 2-0 Cremonese, Napoli 3-2 Udinese, Sampdoria 0-2 Lecce, Bologna 3-0 Sassuolo, Atalanta 2-3 Inter, Monza 3-0 Salernitana, Roma 1-1 Torino, Hellas Verona 1-2 Spezia, Milan 2-1 Fiorentina, Juventus 3-0 Lazio

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Victory meant Napoli finished this season’s first chapter on 41 points. They have won 13 out of 15 matches – something that no other club besides Juventus had ever done in the history of Serie A. The Bianconeri have, admittedly, done it four times. Unsurprisingly, they finished top on each occasion. (One of those, it should be said, was the 2005-06 season for which they would later have their title stripped.)

Journalists continued to ask at full-time whether Napoli were ready to start talking about themselves as potential Scudetto winners for the first time since 1990. Frankly, at this point, it would be ludicrous to pretend otherwise. Nobody knows how a World Cup interruption will impact this season but at this moment Napoli are clear favourites for the plain and obvious reason that they have been much better than anyone else.

“It makes no difference to me if you talk about the Scudetto or not,” said Luciano Spalletti on Saturday. “I know that there are 69 points left to play for this season and that is an ocean. The only thing for us to do is to keep our gaze clear in the fog that other people want to create.”

What a way to lose the match! 😭

Fiorentina were left heartbroken after Nikola Milenković put the ball in the back of his own net 🥅

A crucial goal in the title race 🏆

— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) November 13, 2022

He thanked his squad for “playing like Martians” but the manager deserves just as much credit for keeping them on track even when key performers have been absent. Saturday’s game was the third in a row for Napoli without Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the breakout star of this Serie A season, yet his replacement Elmas rivalled Osimhen for man of the match, overlapping fluidly with another squad player, Mathías Olivera, who was filling in for Mário Rui at left-back.

Contrary to interrupting his team’s rhythm, Spalletti said he was looking forward to the World Cup giving his players a chance to rest and get together for a midseason training camp. Only five are heading to Qatar. Osimhen’s Nigeria and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s Georgia both failed to qualify, while others, such as Mário Rui for Portugal, were simply overlooked.

Spalletti’s perspective is not shared by everyone. The Lazio manager, Maurizio Sarri, told reporters last week that he would likely not even watch a World Cup that he described as an “insult to football”, adulterating an entire season in his mind.

His team entered into the break on a less positive note, beaten 3-0 by Juventus. Lazio were the one other team who could have stayed within eight points of Napoli, but instead were leapfrogged by their opponents. Who would have dared to predict that Juventus would reach the World Cup in third place, after they opened the campaign with two wins in their first seven games?

Six consecutive clean sheets have allowed a rapid ascent, and performances are starting to catch up to results. The gradual return of Federico Chiesa, who set up the third goal off the bench against Lazio, offers further optimism for them of a stronger second part to the campaign.

They are not the only ones who have picked up momentum in recent weeks. Inter finished their year with an impressive 3-2 win away to Atalanta, giving them six wins from their last seven. The problem for all of them, as Juventus’s Massimiliano Allegri pointed out, is that Napoli are setting an impossible pace, on track to hit 52 points by the season’s midway stage.

It was left to the Milan director Paolo Maldini to strike a defiant note. “Of course we believe we can catch Napoli,” he said after his team’s last-gasp win over Fiorentina. “When we played the derby last year we were seven points behind Inter and then we managed to win. We know very well that it’s not easy to keep up this rhythm all the way to the end.”

The familiar sound of a two-decades-old dance track at San Siro on Sunday evening was a reminder of the enthusiasm that swept Milan to their first title in 11 years last season, and a warning that they have not given up on defending it just yet.

Champions League last-16 draw: tie-by-tie analysis | Champions League

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Last month, Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, advocating for a Super League, lamented that his club have faced Liverpool in just nine competitive games. His wish for more has been granted sooner than he expected and perhaps would have liked. Real beat Liverpool reasonably comfortably in last season’s final and had few issues topping a relatively straightforward group, while Liverpool have suffered a miserable start to the season. With Mohamed Salah returning to form, though, Jürgen Klopp’s side may have improved by February and, out of the title race, can afford to focus on Europe. Aurélien Tchouaméni has joined Real and Eduardo Camavinga was beginning to make an impact last season, but the sense remains that the post-Casemiro midfield is yet to be really tested.

Winners Liverpool.

RB Leipzig's André Silva is congratulated after scoring against Manchester City last season
RB Leipzig’s André Silva is congratulated after scoring against Manchester City last season. Photograph: Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

RB Leipzig v Manchester City

These teams met in last season’s group stage, City winning 6-3 at the Etihad before a 2-1 defeat in Germany, with qualification long since secured. In the first of those games, Leipzig were managed by Jesse Marsch; in the second by the caretaker Achim Beierlorzer. Since then Domenico Tedesco has come and gone and now, under Marco Rose, there has been a significant upturn. Saturday’s 3-0 win at Hoffenheim extended Leipzig’s unbeaten run to 11 games and they have been prolific in that time. The front four of André Silva, Dominik Szoboszlai, Christian Nkunku and Timo Werner, who should be back from his ankle injury by February, will test City on the counter.

Winners Manchester City.

Club Brugge v Benfica

Club Brugge were the great surprise of the group stage, winning their first three games without conceding a goal. They secured progress with a 0-0 draw at Atlético Madrid, but the heavy home defeat to Porto that ultimately cost them top spot perhaps gave a truer impression of their abilities: no pushovers, well-organised, but essentially limited. Benfica, meanwhile, ended the group stage in joyous form, with Rafa Silva and João Mario playing probably the best football of their careers. There may be defensive concerns but, even more than the 6-1 win at Maccabi Haifa that meant they topped the group, the 4-3 win over Juventus, when they should have won far more convincingly, demonstrated just how dangerous Roger Schmidt’s side can be.

Winners Benfica.

Milan v Tottenham

Tottenham have not lost to Milan in their four previous meetings, a Peter Crouch goal giving them a 1-0 win at San Siro in their last tie in 2010-11, but how good they are at the moment is anyone’s guess. Hampered by injuries to forwards, with a weird inability to play in the first half (particularly when Dejan Kulusevski is absent) and a dislocation between the midfield and the forward line, their results have been rather better than performances so far this season. The Italian champions have suffered only two defeats in Serie A and have in Rafael Leão one of the more exciting forwards in Europe, but they were desperately poor in losing twice to Chelsea during the group stages, with injuries offer only some excuse.

Winners Tottenham.

André-Frank Zambo Anguissa celebrates scoring Napoli’s second goal in their 4-1 win against Liverpool in September
André-Frank Zambo Anguissa celebrates scoring Napoli’s second goal in their 4-1 win against Liverpool in September. Photograph: Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Eintracht Frankfurt v Napoli

Top of Serie A, unbeaten domestically and hugely impressive in the group stage, Napoli may be the most serious Italian challengers since Juventus decided five league titles in five seasons just wasn’t good enough and got rid of Max Allegri. They are playing fast, dynamic football under Luciano Spalletti and, after the failure of Italy, Nigeria and Georgia to qualify for the World Cup, have an unusual number of players who should be refreshed by a winter break. But unfancied as they may be under Oliver Glasner, Eintracht Frankfurt have become masters of the European away leg. Their Europa League success last season featured victories at Real Betis, Barcelona and West Ham, and this season they won on the road against Marseille and, when they absolutely needed it, Sporting.

Winners Napoli.

Borussia Dortmund v Chelsea

After a shaky start, progress from the group ended up being straightforward for Chelsea, but this is a club still undergoing transition as the recent league defeats to Brighton and Arsenal have shown. There were problems to be addressed in the squad even before the complications of sanctions, and recent injuries have exposed the imbalances that Graham Potter will need to resolve. With Sevilla in miserable form, Borussia Dortmund qualified for the last 16 easily enough, thanks in no small part to a 4-1 win in Spain, a game that highlighted just how important Jude Bellingham has become to Alen Terzic’s side. He may be only 19 but only he, Julian Brandt and Nico Schlotterback have played all 13 league games this season.

Winners Chelsea.

Internazionale v Porto

Porto trail Benfica by eight points domestically but they showed admirable resolve to bounce back from successive defeats at the start of the group stage to qualify with four wins in a row. After suffering a knee injury a month ago, Pepe is a doubt for the World Cup but Porto should have his experience back at the heart of the defence for the last 16. This has not been an easy season domestically for Internazionale and they were twice well-beaten by Bayern Munich, but two fine counterattacking performances against Barcelona ensured progress to the knockout phase for only the second time in the past decade. If Romelu Lukaku can rediscover his form and fitness, his partnership with Lautaro Martínez represents a major threat.

Winners Porto.

PSG’s Keylor Navas concedes the only goal of the 2020 Champions League final to Bayern Munich's Kingsley Coman
PSG’s Keylor Navas concedes the only goal of the 2020 Champions League final to Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman (second right). Photograph: Miguel A Lopes/AP

Paris Saint-Germain v Bayern Munich

For most of the group stage Paris Saint-Germain seemed to be cruising to top spot, but they were undone at the last by Benfica’s flurry away to Maccabi Haifa and are punished with a repeat of the 2020 final. In a sense they fell into a trap they had dug themselves by drawing at home against Benfica the day after stories broke of Kylian Mbappé’s supposed unhappiness at the club. The competing egos will always be the biggest challenge for a PSG coach. Bayern are top of the Bundesliga again, but four draws and a defeat at Augsburg have led to a certain amount of chuntering about Julian Nagelsmann, despite six wins out of six in the Champions League. His record in big European games is not brilliant.

Winners Bayern Munich.

Football wars: what the murder of ‘the Uncle’ says about life inside Italy’s ultras | Football

On 29 October, at 19.48, a 69-year-old man was outside his house in Via Zanzottera, in the north-west of Milan. It was just an hour before kick-off in the match between Internazionale and Sampdoria and Vittorio Boiocchi, nicknamed “lo Zio” (“the Uncle”), was going home to watch the game on TV.

Because of his long criminal record, he was banned from being within 2km of the San Siro, the stadium shared by Milan and Inter. Despite that, Boiocchi had been drinking in Baretto, the historical den for Inter ultras, the “Boys San”.

A motorcycle with two people aboard pulled up and five shots were fired from a 9mm gun, hitting Boiocchi in the chest and neck. He was rushed to hospital in an ambulance but died shortly afterwards. During the first half of the match, the news spread quickly across the terraces. The Inter ultras (the hardcore fans) removed their striscioni, their long banners, and fell silent. At half time, they forced every fan in their section to leave the stadium, a sign of respect for their fallen leader.

At the time of his death, Boiocchi had spent more than a third of his life, just over 26 years, in prison. His criminal career had begun with hold-ups in banks and supermarkets before graduating to wholesale cocaine dealing. Over the years, he had been convicted for international drug trafficking, criminal conspiracy, possession of, and illegal carrying of, weapons, robbery, kidnapping and theft. He had contacts in the Sicilian, Calabrian and Puglian mafias.

Vittorio Boiocchi, left, with Franchino Caravita. Boiocchi was murdered on 29 November.
Vittorio Boiocchi, left, with Franchino Caravita. Boiocchi was murdered on 29 November. Photograph: @lacittanews/Twitter

His last arrest was in March 2021 when – with lockdowns having dented his match income – he was intercepted by police as he was about to kidnap a Milanese businessman. When stopped, he was at the wheel of a stolen car which contained handcuffs, a taser and a Guardia di Finanza bib.

The murder of lo Zio wasn’t the first professional hit on a capo-ultrà. In August 2019, Fabrizio Piscitelli, known as Diabolik, was murdered with a single shot to his temple as he sat in a park in Rome. Diabolik was the boss of the Irriducibili, the undisputed top dogs of the Lazio terraces. He, too, had been involved in large drug deals and was attempting to carve out a space for himself in the crowded Roman underworld.

In July 2016, Ciccio Bucci, a shunned former boss of the dominant Juventus ultras, the Drughi (an Italianisation of the Droogs of A Clockwork Orange fame) was either murdered or committed suicide from a high viaduct connecting Turin to Cuneo. He had been an informant for the secret services, revealing to them the infiltration of far-right extremists and the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, into the Juventus terraces.

So Boiocchi’s murder has once again turned the spotlight on to the ultra world and its overlap with organised crime. In one recent wiretap, he had boasted about making €80,000 a month. He may have been gilding the lily, but it’s certain that he made vast sums through ticket touting (upping the price on tickets given free, or discounted, by the Inter management to their ultras) and by extorting a cut on the parking fees and burger-van profits from around the stadium.

Since release from his last stint in prison, in 2019, Boiocchi had caused ructions on the Inter terraces by attempting to assert his leadership. His release coincided with a period of intense difficulty for the Inter ultras: they had been under media and investigative spotlights following the death of Daniele Belardinelli, or “Dede”, when the Inter ultras had ambushed their Neapolitan rivals in December 2018. (Belardinelli wasn’t even an Inter ultra, but a member of a Nazi ultra gang from Varese that was allied with Inter’s Boys.)

Policeman Filippo Raciti was killed during clashes after the Sicilian soccer derby between Catania and Palermo in February 2007.
Policeman Filippo Raciti was killed during clashes after the Sicilian soccer derby between Catania and Palermo in February 2007. Photograph: Franco Lannino/EPA

Boiocchi’s reappearance had created tensions and there were violent clashes with another Inter capo-ultrà, Franchino Caravita, during which Boiocchi suffered a heart attack. Many of the younger ultras were enraged by the greed of the Uncle. He was once alleged to have complained: “How is it possible that we control the whole terraces and we eat so little?”

The ultras – a mix of punks, Hells Angels, hooligans and hoods – have been an intractable problem for Italian authorities and football clubs for many decades. In the 2000s, a confrontational approach created bloodshed on both sides, with a policeman, Filippo Raciti, killed in clashes in Catania in February 2007, and a Lazio fan, Gabriele Sandri, shot by a policeman as he left a motorway service station in November of the same year. Dozens of other ultras and policemen, or carabinieri, have been wounded and maimed.

Tensions were sometimes so high that games were abandoned altogether, as with the famous Rome derby known as the “Derby of the Dead Baby” (the death of a baby was a rumour which turned out to be false). The hated tessera del tifoso (an obligatory registration card issued by each club) threw fuel on the fire: it divided almost every ultra group, creating ill will in the movement between those who “sold out” and registered and those who “held out” and therefore could no longer go to games.

The alternative to collusion and accommodation, however, has been equally problematic. Because the ultras of big clubs are counted in the thousands, their power is very large: they can decide to vote en masse for a particular politician, call fan strikes, veto newspapers, force players to be sold and blackmail clubs by threatening to chant racist songs so that the clubs are fined.

Many presidents and politicians conclude that it’s better to have these powerful groups on side than set against them: Matteo Salvini, leader of the rightwing League party, publicly embraced Luca Lucci, a Milan capo-ultrà who has also been convicted of major drug dealing, on the San Siro grass in 2018. However murky, the terraces can make or break a political career.

Counting on the support of their erstwhile colleagues, various ultras even enter parliament, like Daniele Belotti, a Leghista from Atalanta (Bergamo). In 2018, he received the highest votes (105,000) of any deputy in the Italian parliament.

The clubs often have little choice but to indulge the ultras. Attendances in Serie A are the lowest in Europe’s top five leagues (in the 2021-22 season, it saw an average attendance of 18,235, compared to the Premier League’s 39,632). In Serie B and Serie C, the figures are far lower (there were under 3,000 spectators in one Serie B game this season). So presidents will often do whatever is necessary to avoid a fans’ strike: gifting dozens of free tickets to ultra groups and allowing them to operate the burger and parking concessions. In the biggest clubs (where there’s ample evidence of ultras receiving hundreds of tickets), touting can make a capo-ultrà €10-20,000 in a single afternoon.

That easy money has solidified the overlap between the ultras and organised crime. Compared to drug-dealing, touting carries minimal risks and negligible legal sanction, so many mafias have muscled their way in. The ultras, meanwhile, have often gone the other way, moving into drug slinging by acting as couriers, distributors and retailers for the well-known mafias from Sicily and Calabria. The professional nature of the hit on Boiocchi suggests that, like Piscitelli, he had somehow offended a mafia contact.

What’s intriguing is how much the ultra subculture has mutated from its genesis in the late 1960s. Back then, almost all the groups were, politically, from the far left, borrowing names from partisan groups and from leftwing insurgencies across the world. The charismatic leaders were mostly just teenage tearaways and the terraces were an inclusive carnival of many colours and choruses.

Now, however, almost all groups are from the far right. The leaders are, like Boiocchi, often of retirement age. Spontaneity is rare as uniformity is imposed: many groups dress identically, usually in black.

Police investigate near the scene where Vittorio Boiocchi was shot and killed in Milan.
Police investigate near the scene where Vittorio Boiocchi was shot and killed in Milan. Photograph: Claudio Furlan/AP

One of the leading names of Verona’s notorious Brigate Gialloblù, Marco Zanoni, once said that ultras are, ultimately, idealists: “And we know that an idealist can, in certain circumstances, become a tough, even an extremist.” Their language is eerily similar to that of religious believers – they talk of “faith”, “sacrifice”, “martyrs” and how the dead are “always present”.

And, as with organised religion, organised ultras can be a significant force for good as well as bad. After the Amatrice earthquake in 2016, the mayor said ultras from all over Italy had done more for his town than all the country’s politicians and thanked them for their “extraordinary solidarity”. Every time there is a natural disaster, ultras are always in the front line. They often open food banks for the poor, and throughout the Covid pandemic were regularly distributing food parcels.

It remains a very paradoxical subculture, both criminal and altruistic, very arrogant and yet surprisingly humble. But the death of “the Uncle” means that ultras will continue to be known for all the wrong reasons.

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. His prize-winning book Ultra: the Underworld of Italian Football is published by Head of Zeus

Diogo Dalot’s revival sums up Erik ten Hag’s work at Manchester United | Manchester United

Manchester United are far from the finished article but, after a rocky start to the season in which they lost to Brighton and Brentford, conceding six goals in the process, the signs are positive for Erik ten Hag. The Dutchman must have been worried about his team after the first two weeks of the campaign, but they have recovered well and sit just a point below the Champions League places with a game in hand on fourth-placed Newcastle.

After a barren run – they have not won a trophy since José Mourinho guided them to success in the Europa League more than five years ago – Ten Hag seems to be getting United back on track. Fans now go to Old Trafford confident that the team will pick up all the spoils, as they have done in four of their last five games, with Newcastle the only side to leave Manchester with a result in that run.

The new additions deserve praise. There were plenty of doubts about Lisandro Martínez given his height, but he has adjusted well to the Premier League and is showing why he is nicknamed “the butcher”. Casemiro and Christian Eriksen have improved the midfield in different ways, while Antony has proven an enjoyable and prolific right winger for United, scoring three goals in just six league appearances.

Ten Hag has also made his mark on the old guard at Old Trafford. United had become stagnant before the manager arrived in the summer. Cristiano Ronaldo has been demoted, the Portuguese forward starting just three league games under Ten Hag, but there are others who had become far too comfortable in their surroundings.

United were not threatening enough from wide positions last season and needed more attacking impetus from their full-backs. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is defensively solid, but he does not contribute enough offensively; in 127 games for United he has only scored twice and provided 10 assists. He made 26 appearances for the club last season and picked up more red cards (one) than he contributed goals or assists (none). The 24-year-old has not developed the offensive side of his game and has been duly restricted to just four minutes of action this season.

Wan-Bissaka has had to watch on as Diogo Dalot has taken his place and excelled under Ten Hag. Right-back was a problem position for United, who were linked with moves for the Dutch defenders, Denzel Dumfries of Inter and Jurrien Timber of Ajax, but Dalot is making the spot his own. Competition was hardly rife given Wan-Bissaka’s offensive shortcomings, but Dalot has thrived down the right flank. Only Bruno Fernandes (29) has created more goalscoring chances than Dalot (20) for United in the league this season. United tend to attack more down their left side – 41% of their attacks go down their left flank compared to just 32%, the joint-lowest in the Premier League, down their right flank – but Dalot makes the most of his opportunities to get forward.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Dalot at United and one that nearly had a premature end last year. José Mourinho signed him from Porto in 2018 for £19m. “The chance of coming to the biggest club in the world is something I just couldn’t turn down,” said the 19-year-old full-back. He struggled with injuries and his appearances were limited under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who preferred the solidity that Wan Bissaka gave the defence.

Dalot spent the 2020-21 season on loan at Milan and, while not a first-team regular for the Rossoneri – just 10 of his 21 appearances in Serie A came from the outset – the club saw enough to try to sign him permanently. Dalot says he enjoyed his time in Italy but, when the loan spell finished, he turned down the chance to extend his stay and instead returned to England and vowed to fight for his place. “In the end I decided to stay at United and it was the right decision,” he said in September.

Dalot enjoyed more opportunities towards the end of last season under Ralf Rangnick and he showed positive signs that he could be the attacking outlet United need at right-back. He has also improved the defensive side of his game, which he credits to his time in Italy. “If I’m a better defender, I owe it to Milan,” he says. “Italian football is different from the Premier League. I had to adapt in just one year and playing in Serie A has helped me a lot.” He is being dribbled past just 0.7 times per 90 minutes this season.

Dalot looks like a player who is full of confidence. He is contributing in the final third, with more touches than any other United player this season, and is doing his bit in what has become one of the tightest defences in the league. United are unbeaten in their last eight games and have only conceded four goals in that run. They look like a very different team to the one that conceded four goals in 25 minutes against Brentford in August.

It’s still early days in Ten Hag’s rebuild, but there is a semblance of an identity returning to United, which has been missing in recent years. Rather than dread the weekend’s fixtures, fans are excited about what to expect from their side. A work in progress, yes, but Dalot encapsulates perfectly what Ten Hag is looking for in his squad – an exciting youngster who is keen to develop and offers more than the player he replaced.

Champions League roundup: Benfica eliminate Juventus as PSG run riot | Champions League

Benfica’s Rafa Silva scored twice as the Portuguese side defeated Juventus 4-3 in a thriller at the Estádio da Luz to seal a place in the knockout stages of the Champions League and end the Italian club’s chances in this year’s competition.

Benfica have 11 points from five games, the same as the Group H leaders Paris Saint-Germain, who defeated Maccabi Haifa 7-2 in an equally stunning game at the Parc des Princes. Juve’s three points, meanwhile, leaves them to focus on winning a place in the Europa League, something they can secure on the final matchday when they host PSG.

Benfica are now unbeaten in 20 games in all competitions this season and it was easy to see why on Tuesday night. They were inventive with the ball and might have been out of sight at half-time before a late Juve rally meant a nervous finish. As it was, it is the first time in the Italian giant’s history they have conceded three first-half goals in the Champions League, and the first time since 2013-14 they have failed to get out of their group.

The teenager Antonio Silva scored his first Benfica goal to give the home side the lead after 17 minutes before Juventus drew level when Moise Kean bundled the ball home four minutes later. Benfica were back in front thanks to a controversial penalty that was converted by João Mario before Rafa Silva appeared to make the points safe with two sublime finishes either side of the break.

The visitors pulled a goal back late on through Arkadiusz Milik after he was set up by the young English winger Samuel Iling, and the latter was key in creating a chance for Weston McKennie to score Juve’s third. That led to a tense finish on a night when Benfica looked as though they would humiliate their visitors but had to hold on as Rafa Silva missed out on a hat-trick by hitting the post.

“It’s really a pity and difficult to find the words,” the Juventus midfielder Manuel Locatelli said.

Paris Saint-Germain’s Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé both scored twice, with Neymar also on target, as the French club’s fearsome attack tore apart Maccabi Haifa in a 7-2 win to send them into the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring in the thrashing of Maccabi Haifa
Lionel Messi celebrates scoring in the thrashing of Maccabi Haifa Photograph: Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

The irrepressible trio were simply too much for Maccabi to handle although the Israeli side showed plenty of spirit in the Group H clash, with Abdoulaye Seck scoring twice. PSG’s romp means with one game remaining against Juventus they top the standings on goal difference from Benfica.

Despite their heavy defeat, Maccabi remain level on three points with Juve and will go into their last game at home against Benfica still hopeful of sealing a Europa League spot.

Christophe Galtier’s side took a while to find their attacking rhythm but once they clicked they were devastating as they threatened to surpass their 7-1 rout of Celtic in 2017.

“The 4-3-3 system meant the front three could be a little higher up the pitch and they had a little more freedom in their movements thanks to the work of the midfield,” Galtier said. “It’s a privilege to have those players and to see them play like that, for each other.”

Messi started things off in the 19th minute with a sumptuous opening goal scored with the outside of his left foot after being played in by Mbappé on the left side of the area. Mbappé’s opener was just as silky, the French forward bending a right-footer in the 32nd minute past goalkeeper Joshua Cohen who could not be faulted for any of PSG’s goals.

It began to turn ugly for Maccabi three minutes later when Mbappé and Messi combined to play in Neymar and the Brazilian’s shot went in on off the post. PSG switched off defensively to allow an unmarked Seck to head in from Omer Atzili’s free-kick but Messi then swapped passes with Neymar before dropping his shoulder and belting a left-footed shot low into the corner to make it 4-1 at half-time.

It took Messi’s Champions League total to 129, 12 behind the record of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Maccabi actually controlled the opening 10 minutes of the second half and when PSG made a hash of clearing a corner, Seck looped a header over Gianluigi Donnarumma and into the net. The visiting fans celebrated joyously but PSG then moved through the gears to run riot.

In the 64th minute Mbappé was picked out by a diagonal pass from Achraf Hakimi and he took a deft touch before picking out the far corner. As Maccabi finally lost heart Neymar’s dribble and low cross ended with Sean Goldberg netting an own goal.

Messi, who was denied a record ninth Champions League hat-trick by the crossbar, then set up Carlos Soler to wrap up the scoring with a low shot.

“We caught Paris on a good day. The smallest slip in concentration against players like that and they can score or have a big chance,” Maccabi defender Dylan Batubinsika said.”

RB Leipzig took a big step towards the Champions League knockout stage with a 3-2 home win against the holders Real Madrid.

With Real having already qualified for the last 16 their manager, Carlo Ancelotti, rested several regular starters and his side were dominated early on by a young Leipzig team. The hosts took the lead on 13 minutes with Josko Gvardiol scoring on the rebound from a Thibaut Courtois save after a bullet header by André Silva.

With the European champions still recovering from that blow, Leipzig extended their advantage five minutes later when David Raum tried to pass into the box but the ball deflected off a defender into the path of Christopher Nkunku who was quick to react and rifled the ball in off the crossbar.

Leipzig had two more great chances but Courtois saved Amadou Haidara’s strike from the edge of the box and Nkuku put a close-range shot wide after beating the onrushing Real goalkeeper to the ball but ending up with a tight angle trying to find the empty net.

“I think we came out very distracted in the beginning of the game and were caught sleeping against a team that is very aggressive,” Courtois said.

Leipzig are second in Group F on nine points, one behind the leaders Real and three ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk, who they face in their final group game next week in need of a draw to guarantee a top-two spot.

Milan revived their hopes of reaching the last 16 with a 4-0 win at Dinamo Zagreb. Back-to-back defeats by Chelsea in their two previous matches had left the Serie A champions with plenty to do to qualify for the knockout stages, but Matteo Gabbia’s first-half header set them on their way to a crucial victory in Croatia.

Rafael Leão’s solo run and finish early in the second half put the game beyond the home side before Olivier Giroud made sure of the three points with a penalty just before the hour mark. A late own goal put the seal on the second win of Milan’s European campaign and one that moves them up to second place in Group E on seven points. If they avoid defeat next week against Salzburg they will reach the last 16.

“I think it is clear that our growth continues with qualification,” the Milan head coach, Stefano Pioli, said.

Sevilla kept alive their slim hopes of reaching the last 16 after second-half goals from Youssef En-Nesyri, Isco and Gonzalo Montiel secured a convincing 3-0 home win against 10-man FC Copenhagen in Group G.

Tomori’s troubles and James injury will worry Southgate as Qatar nears | England

At this rate Gareth Southgate is going to have to bow to public pressure and stuff his team with attackers when England face Iran in their opening game at the World Cup next month.

The defensive concerns are mounting for England’s manager. If the possibility of John Stones returning from the hamstring injury that forced him off against Germany last month is a positive, then it is counteracted by Harry Maguire’s exile from Manchester United’s starting XI and Kyle Walker undergoing groin surgery last week. Even someone with Walker’s recovery speed will find it hard to win the race to be fit for Qatar and, given there is no guarantee Stones will not break down again, it means there are doubts over every member of Southgate’s ideal back-three.

No pressure, then, Eric Dier. The Tottenham centre-back has enjoyed an impressive return to form under Antonio Conte and currently looks certain to start in the middle of the back-three against Iran.

The problems, though, have continued to pile up for Southgate this week. First came Gabriel Martinelli tormenting Trent Alexander-Arnold before the Liverpool right-back departed with an ankle injury during his team’s defeat by Arsenal last Sunday; then, at San Siro on Tuesday, there was the sight of Reece James going off with a knee injury during Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Milan, whose hopes of regaining control of their Champions League group were squashed by Fikayo Tomori being sent off in the 18th minute.

While Graham Potter sounded optimistic about James – it is understood that the right wing-back, who is making himself undroppable for club and country, will not be out for long – the mood around Tomori was gloomier. The defender’s evening was not supposed to end in such rancour and disappointment. Tomori had a point to prove against his old team, especially after failing to impress when Milan lost 3-0 at Stamford Bridge last week, and the general view was that he was unfortunate to be dismissed for a soft foul on Mason Mount after James sent the midfielder through on goal.

While Graham Potter sounded optimistic about James – it is understood that the right wing-back, who is making himself undroppable for club and country, will not be out for long – the mood around Tomori was gloomier

Did the punishment fit the crime? Daniel Siebert was right to award a penalty, but did he have to give a red? The contact was minimal and many people felt Tomori deserved a caution.

Equally, Tomori’s made no genuine attempt to play the ball and it was possible to understand why the referee felt the 24-year-old had denied Mount an obvious goalscoring opportunity.

Using that cold logic, it becomes harder to see Southgate trusting Tomori. He is likely to look past the debate over the red and focus on the defensive frailties. He will analyse how Mount got the wrong side of Tomori, who made matters worse by panicking as he tried to stop his fellow Chelsea academy graduate from shooting. Southgate will surely conclude Tomori is not ready for a place in England’s starting XI.

Chelsea’s Reece James grimaces in pain after after a challenge in Tuesday’s match against Milan.
Chelsea’s Reece James grimaces in pain after after a challenge in Tuesday’s match against Milan. Photograph: Luca Bruno/AP

Southgate has never been convinced about Tomori. He did not bow to the clamour to pick him instead of Maguire as the left-sided centre-back during England’s Nations League matches against Italy and Germany. Tomori was not given a minute, even though Maguire’s struggles continued against Germany, and his difficulties against Chelsea will even leave him at risk of not making the squad.

While that may sound drastic, there was an acceptance Tomori needed to shine during Milan’s double-header against Chelsea. Impressing in Serie A is one thing, but Chelsea are a step up on anything Tomori faces in Italy. It is not insular for Southgate to place more importance on performances from defenders playing in the Premier League. The quality of the opposition is higher and the pace quicker.

Tomori, who has admitted his form has not been up to scratch this season, could not contain Chelsea. He was poor at Stamford Bridge, wilting under an early aerial barrage. He lacked composure and was at fault for Chelsea’s second goal, his failure to cut out a cross from James allowing the unmarked Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to make it 2-0 from close range.

More was expected from a player who helped Milan win the Scudetto last season. Back on home turf, though, Tomori could not even rely on his pace to get him out of trouble when he allowed Mount to get goalside. The red card was instant and if Tomori does miss out on the World Cup that may well be the moment when Southgate crossed his name off the list.

At the same time Southgate is not blessed with many reliable alternatives to his first-choice defenders. Crystal Palace’s Marc Guéhi is inexperienced and Ben White, who has been impressing at right-back for Arsenal, missed out on the last camp. Given Southgate likes to pick those he trusts, do not rule out a recall for Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings, Maguire’s deputy at Euro 2020.

Compromises could be required. There is time for injuries to heal before the 26-man squad is named, but the situation at the back is not ideal. So much of England’s approach is about defensive stability. For Southgate, who has repeatedly stressed the importance of balance at international level, uncertainty is something to avoid.

Aubameyang seals Chelsea victory after Tomori red enrages Milan | Champions League

Graham Potter’s understated revolution at Chelsea is starting to make some serious noise. There is no hint of Thomas Tuchel’s replacement struggling to cope with the big Champions League nights and, while it is not Potter’s style to blow his own trumpet, he could be forgiven for reflecting on how far he has come as he watched his new team cruise to victory at the San Siro.

These are moments to cherish for a man who once coached students at Hull University. Potter is operating at a far higher level now and his shrewd coaching has steered Chelsea’s Champions League campaign back on course.

They are a settled team once more, balanced with and without the ball, and their new owners will be feeling even more bullish about their decision to fire Tuchel given that the past seven days have involved Chelsea twice swatting Milan aside, even if the Italian champions are entitled to argue that a fourth consecutive win for Potter owed much to their momentum being killed off by Fikayo Tomori’s controversial red card.

Perhaps it would have played out differently if Tomori, who must take his share of the blame for a panicky attempt to stop Mason Mount shooting when he was through on goal at 0-0, had been shown more leniency against his old team. Yet the jeers aimed at the German officials was about as fierce as it got from Milan. Chelsea were comfortable, goals from Jorginho and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang taking them top of Group E, and will qualify for the last-16 if they win at RB Salzburg in a fortnight.

It has been an impressive response to taking one point from their first two group games. Confidence was restored by that crushing win over Milan at Stamford Bridge last week and there was no sign of Chelsea being intimidated at this historic old ground. “To come here and win is not straightforward,” Potter said. “We played well.”

Chelsea, who were still without the injured N’Golo Kanté, played with poise. Potter shuffled the pack once again, dropping Ruben Loftus-Cheek and going for the technical duo of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic in midfield. The plan, to silence the din by controlling the tempo, was effective. Chelsea exploited the space behind Milan, who toiled without Simon Kjær and Davide Calabria in defence, and soon gave notice of their threat, Reece James and Mount linking up and Raheem Sterling causing problems before the pivotal moment arrived in the 18th minute.

Inevitably it was James who prised Milan apart, curving a pass through to Mount. There was too much room for Chelsea’s irrepressible right wing-back, who was not flustered by the challenge of marking Rafael Leão, and questions had to be asked of Theo Hernández’s insistence on drifting into midfield. The left-back failed to engage James and alarm spread when Mount darted through.

Milan remonstrate after Fikayo Tomori’s red card during the first half
Milan remonstrate after Fikayo Tomori’s red card during the first half. Photograph: Claudio Villa/AC Milan/Getty Images

Nonetheless there was outrage when Daniel Siebert pointed to the spot, judging that Tomori had deliberately denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity. A penalty and a red? The punishment felt severe given that the contact looked minimal as Tomori grappled with his former Chelsea academy teammate, even if the Milan defender’s clumsiness prevented Mount from getting a clear shot away, but the red card was instant.

“I don’t believe it was the referee’s best night,” Stefano Pioli said. “I asked whether VAR was working properly.”

Tomori, whose second consecutive shocker against his old club could hurt his chances of making England’s World Cup squad, could not rely on VAR. It was galling for Milan, who have slipped to third in the group. Their protests were furious and one fan even tried to put Jorginho off by shining a laser pen in the midfielder’s eyes before his penalty. No matter. Jorginho did not blink before sending Ciprian Tatarusanu the wrong way.

Milan were incandescent. They continued to gripe at the referee, who infuriated them with a flurry of bookings, and almost used their sense of injustice to equalise. Brahim Díaz’s cross caught Chelsea napping, but Olivier Giroud headed wide from close range.

Chelsea stirred. They pushed again, moving Milan around with a long passing sequence, Kovacic quickening the pace finding Mount. A clever flick opened Milan up and Aubameyang, pushing Sterling aside, drove home his third goal for Chelsea.

The game was dead. With Ben Chilwell driving down the left, there was a dynamism to Chelsea. Mount saw a shot pushed away before making way for Conor Gallagher at half-time. Aubameyang went close, while at the other end there was little to concern Trevoh Chalobah, Kalidou Koulibaly and Thiago Silva, who excelled on his return to the San Siro.

Weighed down by injuries, Milan ran out of steam. The only concern for Potter was seeing James limp off with a knee problem. Chelsea will not want to be without him for long, but otherwise the mood is good.

Milan bounce back against Juventus to give Allegri a slap in the face | Serie A

Massimiliano Allegri threw down a gauntlet, only for his rivals to pick it up and slap him in the face with it. “Try taking five starters away from Inter or Milan,” said the Juventus manager last month as he sought to defend his team’s slow start to the Serie A season by gesturing at an extensive injury list. “Then let’s see if they run into difficulty.”

Milan did indeed look diminished as they travelled to Stamford Bridge last week without Mike Maignan, Theo Hernández, Davide Calabria, Simon Kjær, Alexis Saelemaekers and Junior Messias – not to mention long-term absentee Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Chelsea made light work of a decimated defence on their way to a 3-0 Champions League win.

Hernández was back in the lineup for Saturday’s game against Juventus, but the rest remained out of action. It looked like an opportunity for Allegri’s team to build on the momentum they had claimed with back-to-back wins – and six goals scored – against Bologna and Maccabi Haifa. A chance for the manager to prove his point.

Juventus started well, carving out a few half-chances and finding some forward thrust through Juan Cuadrado on the right. But after the Colombian had a shot blocked by Sandro Tonali in the 21st minute, his team could not muster another attempt on goal for the next 50. Milan scored twice in-between.

Fikayo Tomori struck first, crashing the ball home after accidentally blocking a shot from teammate Olivier Giroud at a corner, claiming a small slice of redemption after his humbling return to the Bridge. This has been a difficult season so far for the Englishman, who has struggled to match the standards he set last term, but on Saturday he excelled at both ends of the pitch.

Juventus lined up in a 4-4-2 with Dusan Vlahovic and Arkadiusz Milik up front: a €70m striker accompanied by another who was averaging a goal every 78 minutes. Accompanying Tomori at centre-back for Milan was Matteo Gabbia, a 22-year-old with six starts last season. One of those was a 4-3 defeat by Fiorentina, in which Vlahovic – still playing for the Viola back then – scored twice.

The Serbian never even got as close as attempting a shot for Juventus on Saturday, instead providing the assist for Milan’s second goal. With Tomori assailing his every touch, Vlahovic was flustered into a loose pass across the middle of the pitch. Brahim Díaz intercepted, ran 50 yards and beat Wojciech Szczesny at his near post.


Brahim Díaz breaks through the Juventus defence and finds the back of the net


— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 8, 2022

If Vlahovic chose poorly then he did not deserve to carry the blame all by himself. Milik, the target for the pass, was leaden-footed in reacting to it and Leonardo Bonucci allowed Díaz to breeze past when even a foul would have served his team better. It was a goal that embodied the worst nature of this Juventus side who play with an air of passivity all over the pitch.

A manager who won five consecutive Serie A titles and reached two Champions League finals during his previous stint at Juventus can feel entitled to believe he knows better than his critics but Allegri’s persistence with rigid lines and low blocks has certainly earned him a few. As one Gazzetta dello Sport journalist wrote in their analysis of Saturday’s game: “A 4-4-2 without overlapping full-backs is as credible as a tiramisù without mascarpone.”

Milan’s Theo Hernández invites a tackle from Juve’s Juan Cuadrado in the corner of the pitch.
Milan’s Theo Hernández invites a tackle from Juve’s Juan Cuadrado in the corner of the pitch. Photograph: Nderim Kaceli/LiveMedia/Shutterstock

After nine games, Juventus are already 10 points off the pace atop Serie A. They have failed to win any of their first four away matches for the second time in the club’s top-flight history, and face an uphill struggle to make it out of their Champions League group, despite beating Maccabi, after losing their opening two matches against Paris Saint-Germain and Benfica.

Most damning of all might be the fact Allegri has not won a single game against Milan, Inter or Napoli since he returned to the club last summer. His assertion on Saturday that Juventus had “given up few chances, other than the two times Rafael Leão hit the post … and two very avoidable goals” started to sound like a Monty Python character asking what the Romans have ever done for us.

Stefano Pioli, by contrast, was able to frame this as a show of resilience, a strong “reaction” to the loss in west London. Milan host Chelsea in the return game on Tuesday and can ill afford another defeat in Champions League Group E, where they sit level on points with the Premier League side and one behind Salzburg.

The return of Hernández offers one reason to think that the second meeting need not be a repeat of the first, as does Pioli’s flexibility. After starting every previous game this season in a 4-2-3-1, he adjusted to a 4-3-3 against Juventus, making space for Díaz on the right at the expense of Charles De Ketalaere – the highly-touted summer arrival who has struggled to consistently influence games from the No 10 position.

This may prove a pivotal week for three of Italy’s four Champions League representatives. Only Napoli, as dominant in Europe as they have been at home, can feel confident of making it through to the knockout rounds.

Inter strengthened their position with a 1-0 win at home to Barcelona but Wednesday’s rematch at Camp Nou might well decide everything in a group where Bayern Munich appear locked into first place and Viktoria Plzen have so far looked unlikely to take points off anyone.

Quick Guide

Serie A results


Bologna 1-1 Sampdoria, Milan 2-0 Juventus, Sassuolo 1-2 Inter, Roma 2-1 Lecce, Cremonese 1-4 Napoli, Udinese 2-2 Atalanta, Salernitana 2-1 Verona, Monza 2-0 Spezia, Torino 1-1 Empoli

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Simone Inzaghi’s team have endured a difficult start of their own in Serie A, and began this weekend one point behind Juventus, but a 2-1 win at Sassuolo provided a welcome sense of continuity, building on the midweek win. Edin Dzeko grabbed both goals, taking his personal haul to 101 since arriving in the league with Roma seven years ago.

Inter were missing Romelu Lukaku, Marcelo Brozovic, Joaquín Correa and Stefan de Vrij against Sassuolo. Milan Skriniar and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were each limited to second-half cameos off the bench. They did not have it all their own way, conceding a second-half equaliser after Dzeko put them in front, and requiring the Bosnian to unpick the deadlock a second time.

Allegri was perfectly justified in that suggestion last month that any side shorn of five starters would run into difficulty. But as Milan and Inter both demonstrated this weekend, that is not the same as being overcome by it.

European roundup: Tomori on target to help Milan defeat struggling Juventus | European club football

Milan secured a 2-0 win over rivals Juventus with goals from defender Fikayo Tomori and midfielder Brahim Díaz in a spirited Serie A clash at the San Siro.

The defending champions provisionally moved up two places to third in the standings on 20 points, level with leaders Napoli and second-placed Atalanta who both have a game in hand.

Juventus, who appeared to have turned a corner after beating Bologna 3-0 at home last weekend, following that up with a 3-1 victory against Maccabi Haifa in the Champions League in midweek, remain eighth on 13 points.

Milan made it 1-0 just before the break through Tomori who followed up a shot by Olivier Giroud and rifled the ball into the roof of the net. Díaz doubled Milan’s lead in the 54th minute when he took advantage of Dusan Vlahovic’s mistake and raced towards Juve’s goal, finishing off a solo effort with a brilliant strike.

Edin Dzeko’s 100th and 101st Serie A goals gave injury-ridden Internazionale a 2-1 victory at Sassuolo. The 36-year-old became the third-oldest player to reach the milestone behind Goran Pandev and Sergio Pellissier.

In Spain, Ángel Correa scored twice as Atlético Madrid won 2-1 against Girona to move up to fourth in La Liga. Girona made it difficult for the home side who relied on an inspired performance from Jan Oblak and got lucky when two second-half strikes from the visitors hit the post.

Both Correa’s goals were scored in the early minutes of each half. The Argentina international stroked in a close-range, first-time shot from an Antoine Griezmann cross to open the scoring after five minutes. Three minutes after the break, Correa intercepted a poor pass from goalkeeper Juan Carlos inside the box and buried the ball in the open goal.

Ángel Correa watches his shot go past Juan Carlos for Atlético Madrid’s second goal
Ángel Correa watches his shot go past Juan Carlos for Atlético Madrid’s second goal. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters

Girona reduced the deficit in the 65th minute when Rodrigo Riquelme’s long-range shot deflected off defender José Maria Gimenez, which took it beyond Jan Oblak.

Aleix García smashed a thundering strike off the post in the 77th minute and had a similar strike from the same spot that Oblak acrobatically tipped away. From the resulting corner, Santiago Bueno jumped high to deliver a towering header that smashed against Oblak’s left post. That was as close as Girona came to an equaliser.

Atlético’s win lifted them to 16 points, a point behind third-placed Athletic Bilbao who drew 1-1 at Sevilla, Mikel Vesga equalising for the visitors after Óliver Torres’s early goal. Atlético are three points behind the leaders Barcelona and Real Madrid, who have a game in hand.

In the main game in Germany, Borussia Dortmund scraped a 2-2 draw at home to Bayern Munich. Earlier, Bayer Leverkusen’s Moussa Diaby scored once and set up two for Jeremie Frimpong in a 4-0 demolition of visiting Schalke to give Xabi Alonso a winning start as a coach in the Bundesliga.

Diaby thundered in a shot from outside the area in the 38th minute before setting up Frimpong to drill in from a tight angle three minutes later.
The pair combined again eight minutes after the restart with Diaby again the provider and Dutch midfielder Frimpong slotting in from close range. Paulinho completed the rout with a well-timed run in the 90th minute.

This story will be updated

Reece James steals spotlight to show why he is England’s right-hand man | Champions League

Something sweet happened at the end of this light, fun, convincing 3-0 Chelsea victory against a blunt Milan. As the players hugged at the final whistle, speaking to each other behind their hands like underworld informers, the referee Danny Makkelie of the Netherlands declined Reece James’s offer of a handshake and instead went right in for a full embrace, clasping Chelsea’s right‑back to his bosom in the post-match lineup.

In the moment it just seemed entirely appropriate. Mainly because James was magnificent here, delivering a performance of stately, unruffled incision and total assurance in defence.

He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch. He made one , scored one and did so while defending on the same side as Rafael Leão, a miracle of attacking thrust and drive, who, thankfully for Chelsea, appeared to be invisible to his teammates, who spent most of this game failing to pass to their sole attacking threat.

It has become a habit in recent weeks to fill any surplus dead air with endless chatter about one hyper-talented right-sided player who isn’t in Gareth Southgate’s utilitarian tactical plans. It has been easy to feel sympathy for Trent Alexander-Arnold in the middle of this, to sense that pressure building on him. But it is also pressure on James, the man in possession, whose own performances must now be hyper‑analysed, judged against the ghost-player, the perfect right-back of our imaginations.

Well, he certainly didn’t show it here. Chelsea’s third goal was a lovely moment, one for the highlights reel. The link with Raheem Sterling worked well all game. James made a run outside that demanded a pass. Sterling stroked the ball into his path. James took his time, waited, narrowed the sights, then leathered the ball high into the net.

He has scored this goal before. He likes that angle, knows which spot to hit. The crowd can feel it coming too, the Matthew Harding stand seeming to take a shared breath, to know the precise square of netting James would hit, to listen for the thunk. It is the kind of finish that just seems to deflate the goalkeeper, like being sat down or hurled through a set of saloon doors.

And at times such as this James really does look like a player to build a team around – but not in a showy kind of way, just as a piece of fine architecture, a player without obvious weaknesses, but with super-strengths too.

He has a presence. He keeps the ball. At times Milan stood off him, allowed him space out there. “His potential is beyond the sky,” Graham Potter said afterwards,” and, again, it all felt in keeping with the day.

There was a lightness here. With 75 minutes gone Chelsea had five academy players on the pitch, out there beating Milan 3-0 and playing fun, fluent football. This is a gloriously fickle business. Brave new eras bubble up and then are dashed on the rocks. But maybe, maybe this was even the start of the Boehly age, whatever that might be. Hopefully, for everyone’s sake, not much of a Boehly age: the greatest asset this post-Roman Chelsea has is Potter, and this was a significant night for the manager.

Graham Potter (right), the Chelsea manager
Graham Potter (right) has got Chelsea playing a slick and sleek style of football Photograph: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

The way Thomas Tuchel was sacked was always likely to put pressure on the new man. Make sense of this. Make my gamble work. Be a good decision to cover a bad one. Here Potter appeared freshly trimmed on his touchline, kitted out in a black polo neck, with the air of a celebrity magician, or mid-ranking Steve Jobs wingman.

Potter may be miles out on his own, striding clear of the field, arms cleaving the air, when it comes to astonishingly dull press conferences (is it a bet? Is he doing this for a gag?) but his mature Brighton team was a pretty thing to watch too, full of attacking pep. And Chelsea had something of that here.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovacic was a fun midfield in a tight game, Loftus-Cheek was good here in that central role, using his ability to manipulate the ball, his quick feet to keep possession and drive into space. With the wing-backs pushing on at times Chelsea had six attacking players on the pitch.

Chelsea’s opening goal came on 24 minutes from their fourth corner. It was a scramble. Thiago Silva thrashed around in the six‑yard box like a basking killer whale, scattering the white shirts and eventually the ball fell to Wesley Fofana who eased it into the corner.

Chelsea just walked away with this game in the second half. Fikayo Tomori was at fault for the second goal , attempting an awkward backflip clearance as James crossed from the right, missing it, and allowing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to deflect it in.

And that was pretty much that. Chelsea haven’t really played light, pleasing attacking football like this since, when, well, when? Carlo Ancelotti? Bits of Antonio Conte, but in a more relentless, angry machine-football style? These are early days. But there was a lightness here, the sense of a different energy at work.