It was a goal familiar in its execution: the ball rifled into the back of the net with unerring accuracy and controlled aggressivity from an acute angle.
The celebration was similar too as those in Chelsea blue darted down the touchline in front of those supporters in the Matthew Harding Stand. And the scorer? Well, that was Reece James, who for the second successive year had punished an Italian giant on their visit to Stamford Bridge in the Champions League.
“He can play in any game in the world, he’s just tremendous,” said a very pleased Graham Potter after AC Milan, the reigning Serie A champions, had been dispatched 3-0 in October.
“He’s developing all the time. He’ll get better and better as we go. I’ve really enjoyed working with him and he’s got a lot to offer. My job is to try and help him reach his potential because his potential is beyond the sky. For us, we love him. He’s so important. He can be a Chelsea legend, that’s the level that he has, the potential that he has.”
James’ importance to Chelsea has only grown since the start of last season. As a wing-back, first under Thomas Tuchel and then Potter, he blends defensive nous and brutal physicality with a devastating threat in the attacking third. There is simply very little the England international can’t do.
It’s why his absences over the past 12 months have hurt Chelsea. Last term, James missed twenty matches in all competitions due to injury and illness. This season the figure is already at ten, predominantly due to the knee ligament injury the 23-year-old sustained in the return Champions League group game against AC Milan at San Siro. That injury is one that hurt James, both physically and emotionally, as it meant despite his best efforts he missed the World Cup in Qatar.
“Devastated,’ the academy graduate wrote on Twitter after being told by Gareth Southgate he wouldn’t make the squad. “The minute I injured my knee, I knew the turnaround to make the World Cup would be tight, but I always felt it was possible.
“I’ve worked harder than I ever thought I could to give myself the best chance of going and truly believed I could help the team. I appreciate there was a risk on both sides but it was one I was willing to take. Good luck to the boys. I’ll be back soon.”
James’ recovery has continued throughout the World Cup and on Monday – having flown out with a makeshift first-team Chelsea squad for a warm-weather training camp in Abu Dhabi – he made a tentative return to training.
“Reece is not quite fully training yet but he’s integrating into it,” explained Potter. football.london understands James, who signed a new six-year contract in September – has continued to work with the first-team group over the past three days. Should he continue to come through the sessions unscathed, there is genuine hope he will be ready to make his return to competitive action when the campaign restarts at home to Bournemouth on December 27.
That would be a huge boost for Chelsea, and also for Potter given the criticism he has faced prior to the World Cup break. The numbers very much make that clear. In the seven Premier League matches James has played in this season, the Blues have a winning percentage of 57%. Without him, it drops alarmingly to 0.14 per cent. It’s admittedly a small sample size and other factors – such as the strength of opponents – shouldn’t be overlooked. Yet there is no denying that Chelsea are a far more dominant side with James patrolling the right flank, be it from wing- back or full-back.
He has become the club’s most valuable player, the true difference maker. His return ahead of an intense January period in which Chelsea take on Manchester City twice, Liverpool once and face two London derbies against Fulham and Crystal Palace, will be invaluable.