Graham Potter has passed his first big test as the Chelsea manager but Milan, one of the grandest names in football, simply didn’t turn up.
If a home debut may be considered the first true test of a new manager, Graham Potter’s ended in a resounding pass. Potter cut a singular figure on sidelines in a navy blue jacket and black polo-neck for his , looking a little as though he’d gone through the wrong entrance while looking for a sociology lecture, but the ease with which his Chelsea team brushed Milan aside suggested that he has hit the ground running after his high-profile defection from Brighton, that his methods can work as effectively at the elite level as they did a rung or two further down the football food chain.
There was little question that this fixture mattered to Chelsea. A weak start to their Champions League campaign, just a single point from their first two matches, had left them bottom of their group, and fifteen minutes before the teams came out off the tension edged up another notch with the news that RB Salzburg had picked up their first win of the group stage in their earlier kick-off against Dinamo Zagreb. A failure on Chelsea’s part to match that win would leave them at least three points adrift of second place with just three matches left, and their next match in this competition being the return match in Milan, in just six days times.
But it was also a big night for Potter. His Premier League debut against Crystal Palace had, eventually, worked out for him. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored his first goal, Potter introduced Connor Gallagher as a substitute and the former Palace loanee scored the winning goal with two minutes to play. A goal for all narrative. It wasn’t a sparkling performance against a Palace team that has been coughing and spluttering this last few weeks, but there were enough positives to take from it to reasonably call it a good day at the office.
But this was a home match, his home debut, and Stamford Bridge, where the crowd is about as close to the pitch as it’s possible to be, was crackling with nervous energy beforehand, a skittishness fed by banks of Milan supporters tucked away in one corner of the ground, almost entirely dressed in black, making an awful lot of noise. These large travelling supports add a splash of occasion to every match, but it was a tetchy and somewhat scrappy opening, with the two teams largely cancelling each other out, Milan nominally the better side.
But when Chelsea turned the screw midway through the half, the results were almost immediate. The warning shot was a Thiago Silva header, tipped over by the Milan goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu, but Milan seemed to buckle quickly under so much as a light jab of sustained pressure, and within a couple of minutes they were behind, Wesley Fofana rolling the ball from close range after a scramble had followed Tatarusanu again blocking a header from Thiago. Hardly the sort of defending that you’d normally associate with a club that achieved great success in the past playing a version of catenaccio.
It wasn’t all good news for Potter, by half-time. Fofana had to be substituted with a knee injury a little over ten minutes after giving Chelsea the lead, and considering all the issues he’s had with knee injuries in the past – they were a pretty consistent part of his brief spell in the Saint-Etienne first team and his first full season with Leicester – his early withdrawal will be a concern.
For all that Chelsea dominated the first half, Milan would have been level by the break had Rade Krunic not spooned the ball over the crossbar from six yards out in a manner which suggested that he’d momentarily mistaken Stamford Bridge for Twickenham. It would have been considerably more than Milan deserved for their first half exertions, had he converted his opportunity in a football sense.
It certainly helps to calm the nerves, to be playing opponents as gracious as Milan’s defence were. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had been a fairly anonymous presence throughout the first half, but ten minutes into second he scored from close range following further Milan defending that fell approximately halfway between incompetent and uninterested, and it took just a further six minutes for Reece James to add a third, lashing the ball in from an angle after yet more inexplicably bad Milan defending.
Milan’s performance was so poor that it does provide the biggest asterisk of the evening for Chelsea. Milan have been the Champions of Europe seven times in the past. It’s reasonable to call them one of the great names of European clubs football. But there was no hint of that grandiosity, this time around. In this competition last season, Real Madrid relied on every ounce of nous and arrogance that comes from being who they are to bulldoze their way through the field to win the competition yet again. Milan is a name that should carry a similar weight, but the evidence of this display was that they are light years from the level of Europe’s current best.
But that can hardly be laid at the door of Chelsea or Graham Potter. You can only beat the opposition that is put in front of you, and for all that we may critcise their opponents for the paucity of their performance, Chelsea turned up, got the job done, and with the win secure shut down the last thirty minutes with relative ease. Milan had been okay for the first twenty minutes or so, but their defence was bent out of shape at the first sign of any significant pressure and by the end of the match it rather felt as though both teams might had settled for the 3-0 Chelsea win. Their noisy travelling supporters deserved better than their team gave them from this game.
No-one ever doubted that Chelsea’s squad with stuffed with outstanding players. The challenge was always going to be getting them to perform as a team. It’s very early days and he will definitely face bigger challenges than the Italian champions managed, but this was an introduction which suggested that Graham Potter’s application of football science could push his new club back into contention in both club and European competitions. Indeed, considering how comfortable his team found the going against one of the grand old names of European club football, he could even be forgiven wondering what all the fuss is surrounding this co-called ‘Champions League’ is even about.
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