Wesley Fofana opened the scoring for Chelsea with his first-half goal in the 24th minute, but was forced off injured just 14 minutes later. AC Milan had spells of possession but it was Chelsea who took charge of the match in the second half with goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Reece James.
That allowed Graham Potter to empty the bench and enjoy his first Champions League victory in charge of Chelsea, but more importantly, it was their first win in the competition this season and keeps them in the mix for a spot in the knockout stages.
1. Chelsea delivered in early test of Potter era
Potter did not get much of a chance for a settling in period at Chelsea. The 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb in their opening Champions League match of the season, in what proved to be Thomas Tuchel's final match in charge of the club, put Chelsea on the backfoot. In Potter's first match in charge, they only managed a 1-1 draw with FC Salzburg at Stamford Bridge which meant tonight's was a must-win for Potter -- lose and their Champions League hopes would be left hanging by a thread and reliant on other results.
But Potter's Chelsea delivered. This was by far their best performance of the three in his tenure as they pressed and pulled AC Milan all over the pitch. While the Serie A champions had some decent chances, Chelsea controlled much of the match and you can see the team growing increasingly familiar as a group under Potter's charge. It's a philosophy based on overloads, and attacking at the right moments at blistering pace. This group are suited neatly to that with the likes of James, Sterling and Aubameyang all fantastic.
The two central midfielders in Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovacic played well in a pair, switching up who heads forward and who holds back. And then there was the veteran Thiago Silva at the back who was magnificent. It was his trio of headers from successive set pieces in the first half which triggered the eventual scramble to allow Fofana to score his first for the club and Chelsea's opener.
And importantly, Kepa Arrizabalaga kept a clean sheet in the Chelsea goal. With Edouard Mendy fit again having missed Potter's first two matches, it was going to be fascinating to see who started and it was Kepa, who was so often second-choice under Tuchel. Whenever Kepa was called upon, he did what was needed.
2. Sterling, Aubameyang shine on front line despite Mount frustration
Chelsea's front three clicked against AC Milan. Though Mason Mount is yet to score this season, you can't imagine Potter is going to change things up much after seeing his front three gel like they did on Wednesday evening.
Aubameyang put in his best performance yet in a Chelsea shirt on his third appearance as his movement constantly pulled AC Milan's defence out of position. He grabbed his second in as many matches with a neat finish off the back of James' cross in the second half.
Elsewhere, Sterling and James are working brilliantly down Chelsea's right side with the two frequently overlapping one another. It was his assist which saw James finish confidently from close range for Chelsea's third. The medium-term picture on the other flank is still a little ambiguous what with Marc Cucurella on the bench and Chelsea having a wealth of attacking talent, but Mount and Ben Chilwell dovetailed well against Milan.
One of Potter's first main tasks will be to get Mount's confidence back up. Mount will be desperate to get off the mark this season for Chelsea but it's not for want of trying. He had a shot well-saved in the first half and another effort -- a neat chip -- ruled out due to being offside.
3. Leao proves why he's AC Milan key man amid transfer links
Chelsea made an enquiry about AC Milan's attacker Rafael Leao in the summer, and you can see why he's one of Europe's most sought-after talents. He had moments of breath-taking skill, but he's far more than just a box of tricks. His movement makes him so hard to pick up -- twice in the first-half he glided through half of southwest London into the Chelsea penalty area. The second dart past Reece James -- no mean feat -- resulted in Charles de Ketelaere having his shot parried by Kepa and offering Rade Krunic a great chance, but he was unable to convert from eight yards out with the net gaping on the stroke of half time. He also had one eye-catching dart in the second half to leave Thiago Silva in his wake but his attempted pass to Olivier Giroud was intercepted.
Of course the sight of watching Leao dancing through a defence is nothing new to the followers of Serie A and AC Milan. He's been exceptional for Pioli's side. He was instrumental in their charge to the Scudetto last term, and already has four goals and four assists in seven Serie A matches this season. But Leao's ability was there for all to see and if the Premier League is to be an eventual destination for the 23-year-old Portugal forward, then this was a superb audition.
While Leao was the focus of much attention, there was also an eye on Fikayo Tomori's homecoming. He was a youth product at Chelsea but left the club for AC Milan in 2021 and has established himself as an indispensable part of their team. He played well on his return to Stamford Bridge and was definitely one of AC Milan's more impressive performers on the night but will be frustrated at being unable to cut out James' cross for Aubameyang's goal.
Chelsea: Kepa 7, Koulibaly 7, Thiago Silva 8, Fofana 7, James 8, Chilwell 7, Loftus-Cheek 8, Kovacic 7, Mount 7, Sterling 7, Aubameyang 8
Subs: Chalobah 7, Gallagher 7, Jorginho 6, Broja 6, Havertz 7
AC Milan: Tatarusanu 6, Dest 5, Kalulu 6, Tomori 6, Ballo-Toure 6, Tonali 5, Bennacer 6, De Ketelaere 5, Rafael Leao 6, Krunic 5, Giroud 5
Subs: Rebic 5, Gabbia 6, Origi 5, Pogeba 5, Brahim Diaz 5
Best and worst performers
BEST: Thiago Silva, Chelsea.
Aubameyang, Sterling, James and Loftus-Cheek all played well, but the Brazil defender was superb at the back. The 38-year-old was the first Chelsea player to really get close to Leao and it was his barrage of headers in the first half that gave Fofana a platform to score their opener. He was superb.
WORST: Rade Krunic, AC Milan.
There are a few candidates from AC Milan here, but Krunic really struggled. Ben Chilwell kept him quiet and Krunic squandered AC Milan's best chance of the match on the stroke of half-time as he failed to convert from a few metres out.
Highlights and notable moments
It had to be him! Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang haunts his old club Milan. 👻— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) October 5, 2022
Reece James' assist though. 🥶 pic.twitter.com/2NxXo4RwLD
A pinpoint cross by Reece James to give Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang his first Champions League goal in nearly five years.
KEPA KEEPS CHELSEA AHEAD RIGHT ON HALF-TIME! 🛑 pic.twitter.com/nlIlp89AcD— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) October 5, 2022
A key save by Kepa right before halftime that would have changed the dynamics of the game had the ball gone in.
After the match: What the managers, players said
Chelsea coach Graham Potter: "Delighted with the performance and attitude against top opponents. I thought we had to react well and we did. We had to suffer as well which is good to do. I'm really pleased for the players and that's a good start for us.
"Chelsea vs. AC Milan is a fantastic football match and to be involved in it is something I'm grateful for, but to win the match is great. We need to recover now and go again at the weekend."
Potter on Wesley Fofana's injury: "We don't know yet. That's the one disappointing thing on the evening. He needs a scan tomorrow and fingers crossed. I wouldn't want to speculate on it, but we're concerned, and we'll have the scan tomorrow."
AC Milan coach Stefano Pioli: "We could've played better, it's clear our opponents played at a very, very high level but our accuracy wasn't as good as it should've been. After a couple of minutes we started doing things we weren't meant to be doing and our opponents could exploit space behind us quickly.
"It wasn't a good evening, this is just an episode. We weren't dangerous at all and didn't do enough in front of the opposition goal. It wasn't our day today. We knew it was going to be a tough game, but mentally, we didn't play as a team."
Chelsea's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to BT Sport: "It was not an easy game. They played well in the first half. Then we kept the intensity really high. We were confident."
Key Stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
- Despite his time at Arsenal and Barcelona, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had his first Champions League goal since he scored a Dec. 6, 2017 brace vs. Real Madrid back when he played for Borussia Dortmund.
- Before Wednesday night, AC Milan had never lost a Champions League group stage game by 3+ goals. They have lost by that margin on five occasions in knockout round matches.
Chelsea: Back to Premier League action with Wolverhampton Wanderers visiting on Saturday, then off to the San Siro against AC Milan next Tuesday.
AC Milan: A couple big home matches on the horizon, with Serie A rivals Juventus coming through on Saturday before Chelsea's visit on Tuesday.