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UEFA Champions League

Champions League: Chelsea’s Aubameyang hope adds to expectation against wounded AC Milan

16:16 EAT 04/10/2022
Aubameyang Chelsea Milan
The striker expertly opened his Blues account at the weekend, and Graham Potter will want more of the same against Stefano Pioli's injury-hit troops

More important than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring his first Chelsea goal at Crystal Palace was Aubameyang scoring his maiden Chelsea goal before Wednesday’s Champions League meeting with AC Milan.

The swivel on the turn and well-taken finish was just what the doctor ordered with Graham Potter’s crew trailing at the time and perhaps fortunate to have kept 11 men after Thiago Silva’s ill-advised handball.

It was noteworthy that Aubameyang played 74 minutes on Saturday, an improvement from 58 minutes at Dinamo Zagreb and 65 in match-day two against Red Bull Salzburg. Slowly but surely, the former Barcelona striker is finding his feet after a tough start in West London.

The deadline day arrival’s reunion with Thomas Tuchel was short-lived, with the German jettisoned no sooner after the Gabonese returned to English football, bookended by Champions League disappointments versus Dinamo and Salzburg.

Aubameyang’s decision-making against the Croatian side was questionable before he fizzled out in the 1-0 loss, while a fitter Auba could not find the back of the net against the Austrian side despite shooting at goal three times on his Stamford Bridge debut for the club.

The manner of Saturday’s goal — a truly world-class finish from a half-chance — and his all-round performance suggest the striker is far more comfortable in new surroundings and could go on a run to silence doubters even if his manager played down that suggestion last week.

“It was an important goal as well,” Potter stated after Saturday’s 2-1 success. “He’s been working hard to get himself up to Premier League fitness, and I’ve been really impressed with him.

“All forwards will say it’s important for them to score and it was an important goal for us.”

Away from Aubameyang getting the monkey off his back, is Chelsea’s greater need to show the best version of themselves in this year’s Champions League. The West London club were favourites to finish above AC Milan, Dinamo and Salzburg but find themselves bottom after 180 minutes of football.

They can take solace in the underlying numbers which show their position in Group E is not a fair reflection of the quality of chances created and conceded after two games — only Milan (2.6 Expected Goals) have a higher xG than Chelsea (2.5) and the Premier League side’s Expected Goals Against (0.8 xGA) betters the other sides in their bracket.

They welcome Ismael Bennacer’s Milan to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, looking to claim success over a side they already trail by three points in the first of this double-header to be held in the next seven days.

While the Serie A side currently top the group — and travel to West London on the back of a wild success over Empoli on Saturday — Stefano Pioli’s crew are the walking wounded, owing to surplus injuries that have recently hit the Rossoneri.

The defending Italian champions saw Alexis Saelemaekers, Davide Calabria and Simon Kjaer all go off at the weekend, adding to an injury list that already comprised Mike Maignan, Theo Hernandez, Junior Messias, Alessandro Florenzi, Divock Origi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Bennacer and his colleagues have their work cut out for them at the Bridge, but Pioli’s team are fighters who find solutions in adversity and will need those characteristics on Wednesday night.

Chelsea’s Senegal internationals, Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly may return to the Blues’ XI, although it is not set in stone.

The goalkeeper has not featured since Tuchel’s penultimate game in charge against West Ham United, whereas the centre-back will hope to make his first appearance under Potter against opponents he is accustomed to.

Hakim Ziyech’s level has frustrated supporters, but there were signs of life in match-day two’s 1-1 draw with Salzburg, although the Morocco playmaker is likely to make do with a place on the bench when Milan visit.

Chelsea’s fate remains in their hands, and they must start scoring consistently to achieve their short-term and long-term targets in 2022-23. Aubameyang back on the scoring trail could be auspicious for the hitherto inconsistent Blues.

The pick of Tuesday’s European action sees Franck Kessie return to Milan with Barcelona to face Inter Milan, with the Spanish outfit aiming to show the required bouncebackability after losing 2-0 at Bayern Munich in the preceding match-day.

Despite that, the most intriguing group of games arguably comes in Group A, where Liverpool host Rangers and Ajax welcome irrepressible Napoli.

Mohamed Salah has endured an underwhelming start to 2022-23 and will back himself to start scoring again with cellar-dwelling Rangers visiting Anfield this week.

The other game will be without Victor Osimhen — excluded from Luciano Spalletti’s group that has travelled to the Netherlands — but could witness another midfield masterclass from Andre Zambo Anguissa, whose performances and end product at the start of the season have been outstanding.

Mohamed Kudus has been one of Ajax’s dependable match-winners in the last month, and the Ghana international will hope the recent hiatus has not slowed him down in front of goal.

Observers may not pay much attention to Club Brugge hosting Atletico Madrid, owing to the action in Groups A and C, yet the Belgium club’s African contingent — comprising Kamal Sowah, Raphael Onyedika, Denis Odoi and Abakar Sylla — could continue their 100 percent start in Group B with a win over Diego Simeone’s crew.

Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri and Yassine Bounou deservedly sit bottom of Group G and require a positive result against a Borussia Dortmund side they trail by two points. The other game of the group should see Riyad Mahrez return for Manchester City when they play host to Copenhagen.

Paris Saint-Germain’s XI against Benfica should include Achraf Hakimi as Christophe Galtier hope to create separation from the Portuguese side who have matched the Ligue 1 side after two match-days.

This season’s shortened group stage increases the likelihood of an early upset after six games. We are only 180 minutes in, but Chelsea appear to be the frontrunner for an ignominious European exit.

While Aubameyang may not entirely hold the keys, the former Barcelona centre-forward could turn the tide against a side he never represented competitively. The sooner, the better.