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LONDON -- Rafael Leao bounces, shading left then right, all false starts and bursts to nowhere. He knows that sooner or later he'll turn on the boosters. When he does there are few players on the pitch who are getting close to him. Perhaps only one.

Two years ago Leao was a precocious neophyte, entranced by the prospect of playing with the real Zlatan Ibrahimovic rather than the virtual superstar he had been admiring on his PlayStation. Tonight he rippled with an invigorating arrogance he could well have picked up from the great man.

His opponent for much of this game was Reece James, not one who finds himself coming second in duels more than once or twice. Still the Portuguese forward had plenty of weapons to test his defender: 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 all that often and anyway, he would get the last laugh.

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Before then, there were not insignificant difficulties for James and his Chelsea teammates early on. Mason Mount seemed to bounce off Leao challenging for a fity-fifty ball in midfield. In those early exchanges, the youngster seemed to be playing on fast forward while the other 21 players were stuck in a slow-motion replay. 

Every time the ball came to Leao, the traveling Curva Sud rippled with anticipation. So did he. This was his team and he knew it. The issue is Chelsea rather quickly cottoned on to that as well, their solution elegantly simple. Keep the ball from Milan's talisman and there was precious little to worry them. They were aided in that regard by the loose passing of Charles De Ketelaere at No. 10 but in particular the total lack of attacking impetus provided by Sergino Dest and Rade Krunic across the pitch.

Even zeroed in on Leao, Chelsea could not hold him off entirely. On the stroke of halftime he found a seam to drive into, in a flash he was through the gap between James and Trevoh Chalobah. The entire Chelsea defense collapsed in on the No. 17 but the ball squirmed to De Ketelaere. He might have done better than punt straight at Kepa Arrizabalaga but Krunic spurned the chance of the night as he lifted the ball over a near-empty net.

Leao could have turned the game for his side on another day. In another few years, he might only need one or two runs at a defense to tear it to shreds. This time though the mere fact that the Portuguese and his teammates were so determined to test the Chelsea right seemed to fuel James, who blazed through this game. If Milan were going to come at him he was going to hit back harder. The dangerman he was leaving in his rearview mirror did nothing to convince him he should not drive forward. He did so with devastating effect even before the second half, winning a string of free kicks earlier on from the struggling Fode Ballo Toure.

The visiting left back would have struggled even with appropriate support but none was forthcoming. As a cross from the left came out to Chelsea's wing-back, his foe tonight was stood just inside his own half, doing what superstar forwards do and waiting for the ball to come back to his team. Instead, James had time to pick his spot and deliver a cross into the gap between Milan's center backs. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang almost seemed to be taken by surprise as the ball bounced off him and into the net.

One would have to assume that Leao's absence from the defensive end, keeping Milan's most devastating attacker up high, was by design. Even after the second he never tracked back. If so, Stefano Pioli erred significantly. Once more there was no one within striking distance of James when the ball came to Sterling on the edge of the box. A simple through ball was met by a thundering effort. If Ciprian Tatarusanu had got a glove on it he would have been picking that out of the net too.

After weeks of increasingly interminable debate over the relative merits of Trent Alexander-Arnold in an England shirt, here was a reminder that the other options are hardly scrubs either. Indeed James might have a case to be ranked alongside his Liverpool counterpart at the very peak of his position globally. Over the past year, he has quite possibly been the very best.

The contrast could scarcely have been more vast with the leading contender for the USMNT. If Gareth Southgate is unsure what to do in Qatar next month he could do worse than pick Mount and Ben Chilwell, instructing them to repeat the brutal examination on Dest they carried out tonight.

James, meanwhile, has the feel of a first name on his teamsheet for country as well as club. No wonder when he can pass with flying colors tests as advanced as that posed by Leao.