Rafael Leao bounces, shading left and right, a series of false starts and bursts to nowhere. He knows he’ll have to activate the boosters sooner or later. When he does, only a few players on the field can get close to him. Maybe just one.
Leao was a neophyte two years ago, enthralled by the prospect of playing with the real Zlatan Ibrahimovic rather than the virtual superstar he had admired on his PlayStation. Tonight, he glowed with an energizing arrogance that he could have picked up from the great man.
For much of the game, he faced Reece James, who is not known for finishing second in duels more than once or twice.
Still, the Portuguese forward possessed a plethora of weapons to put his defender to the test: the height to win aerials, the burst to take him down the flank, and the quick feet to edge through. Of course, James was not easily beaten, and he would always have the last laugh.
Before that, James and his Chelsea teammates faced significant challenges early on. Mason Mount appeared to bounce off Leao while attempting a fifty-fifty ball in midfield. During those early exchanges, the youngster appeared to be playing in fast forward while the other 21 players appeared to be stuck in slow motion.
The traveling Curva Sud rippled with anticipation every time the ball came to Leao. He felt the same way. This was his team, and he was aware of it. The problem is that Chelsea quickly realized this as well, and their solution was elegantly simple. Keep the ball away from Milan’s talisman, and there was little to worry about.
They were helped in this regard by Charles De Ketelaere’s loose passing at No. 10, but most notably by the total lack of attacking impetus provided by Sergio Dest and Rade Krunic across the pitch.
Even with her sights set on Leao, Chelsea was unable to keep him at bay. He found a seam to drive into on the stroke of halftime and was through the gap between James and TrevohChalobah in a flash. Chelsea’s entire defense converged on the No. 17, but the ball squirmed to De Ketelaere. Krunic could have done better than punt straight at Kepa Arrizabalaga, but instead, he lifted the ball over a nearly empty net.
On another day, Leao could have won the game for his team. In a few years, he might only need one or two runs at defense to shred it. This time, however, the Portuguese and his teammates’ determination to put Chelsea on the defensive seemed to fuel James, who blazed through the game. If Milan came at him, he was going to hit back harder. The dangerman in his rear-view mirror did nothing to convince him that he should not proceed. He did so with devastating effect even before the second half, winning a string of free kicks from the struggling Fode Ballo Toure earlier in the game.
Even with adequate support, the visiting left-back would have struggled, but none was forthcoming. As a cross from the left reached Chelsea’s wingback, his opponent was standing just inside his half, doing what superstar forwards do and waiting for the ball to return to his team. Instead, James was able to pick his spot and deliver a cross between Milan’s center-backs. As the ball bounced off Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and into the net, he appeared to be taken aback.
One has to believe that Leao’s absence from the defensive end, which kept Milan’s most lethal attacker up high, was intentional. He never looked back after the second. If so, Stefano Pioli made a significant error. When the ball came to Sterling on the edge of the box, there was no one within striking distance of James. A simple through ball was met with a ferocious effort. If Ciprian Tatarusanu had a glove on it, he would have picked it out of the net as well.
After weeks of debating the relative merits of Trent Alexander-Arnold in an England shirt, here was a reminder that the other options aren’t exactly scrubs either. Indeed, James could be ranked alongside his Liverpool counterpart at the pinnacle of his position globally. He has quite possibly been the best over the last year. The contrast with the leading contender for the USMNT could not be starker. If Gareth Southgate is unsure what to do in Qatar next month, he could pick Mount and Ben Chilwell and instruct them to repeat the brutal examination on Dest they performed tonight.Meanwhile, James has the feel of the first name on his team sheet for both country and club. No surprise when he can pass advanced tests like Leao’s with flying colors.