Olivier Giroud propelled AC Milan into the semi-finals of the Champions League on Tuesday by scoring the decisive goal in a 2-1 aggregate win over Napoli in the quarter-finals.
After Milan won 1-0 in the first leg at the San Siro last week, Giroud’s first-half goal in the second leg – having previously saved a penalty – was the series decider as Napoli’s Victor Osimhen scored in added time, leading the series A
Before Osimhen’s header three minutes into injury time, Napoli’s best chance came late in the second half when Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan saved Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s penalty. Had that penalty gone on goal, Napoli might have salvaged the draw, but Milan persevered and made it into the last four.
1. AC Milan’s smart performance (and a possible Milan derby) puts Inter under pressure
Olivier Giroud’s first-half goal against Napoli and a defensive masterclass led by Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjaer secured AC Milan their first Champions League semi-final appearance since 2006/07 and increased the pressure on city rivals Internazionale, an all- Milan derby to be confirmed for the place in May finals.
Inter Milan, who led 2-0 against Benfica after last week’s first leg in Lisbon, are heavy favorites to retire at the San Siro on Wednesday and secure their first Milan semi-final derby since 2002/03 as AC Milan progressed on away goals before beating Juventus in the final in Manchester.
But AC Milan clinched Milan’s first place in the semi-finals by tipping the odds of a two-game win over runaway Serie A leaders Napoli. A narrow 1-0 win in the first leg gave AC Milan something to hold on to at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona and they did it with a defensive performance that evoked memories of the club’s defensive greats of the past including Franco Baresi, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini.
Tomori and Kjaer combined to thwart Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, who looked unfit for nearly a month after suffering a groin injury in his first game before scoring deep into injury time, while Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan was rock solid for a long time before taking Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s 81st minute penalty.
Milan simply had a game plan and they stuck to it, while a tired Napoli struggled to convert their many chances, although none were clear goalscoring opportunities. But after saving a first-half penalty from Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret, Giroud put Milan under control by scoring from a Rafael Leão cross just before half-time.
Napoli lacked the energy to fight their way back to a draw so it’s Milan who make it into the last four and what is likely to be a box-office hit Derby of the Madonna against Inter.
2. Kvaratskhelia’s struggles sum up Napoli’s fading magic
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia will earn a spot on any Team of the Season list for his incredible performances for Napoli in his first season at the club – but he has slacked off sharply in recent weeks and his decline in form has coincided with that of his team.
Napoli will win Serie A this season – their first scudetto since 1990 – but they never looked close to beating Milan in the two legs of this quarter-final despite being 22 points clear Rossoneri in the Italian league table.
Injuries and suspensions dashed their Champions League hopes, with Victor Osimhen, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Kim Min-jae and Giovanni Simeone all missing one or both legs of that tie. Napoli also lost Mario Rui and Matteo Politano to injuries in the first half of that second leg, leaving coach Luciano Spalletti to deal with major personnel problems that would have weakened any team in the world.
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Georgian winger Kvaratskhelia was fit and called up for both games in that clash, but despite having plenty of possession there wasn’t the explosive pace or goal threat of earlier in the season.
In 35 games in all competitions for Napoli he has provided 14 goals and 16 assists which are world-class stats.
But after Maignan saved his penalty in the 81st minute, it was the sixth game in a row in which he failed to score or score. So it’s clear that Kvaratskhelia hit a wall.
He was still a star of the season but the final weeks of the season seem a step too far for him and Napoli.
3. Milan are temptingly close to Champions League redemption in Istanbul
The 2005 Champions League final is now known to some as the Miracle of Istanbul, thanks to Liverpool FC’s incredible recovery from a 3-0 half-time deficit against AC Milan at the Ataturk Stadium. While this game is celebrated in Liverpool, it remains a scar on Milan’s psyche.
But the Rossoneri are now within reach of a return to Istanbul for this year’s final and a chance to demand redress for what happened at the same stadium 18 years ago.
At the start of this season, few would have guessed Milan would advance to the final. Even the team’s most ardent supporters would have found it difficult to come up with a convincing argument that Stefano Pioli’s team would make it to Istanbul.
But Milan now have the feeling of a side who believe they can go all the way. They’re a club steeped in Champions League history – only Real Madrid have won the competition more times – and they’re now keen to return to Istanbul to avenge 2005.
Former captain Paolo Maldini, who played five times in the Champions League with Milan, is now back at the San Siro as technical director and, having played against Liverpool in the 2005 final, will be determined to return to Istanbul to make his own memories to bury tonight.
Don’t write off this Milan team. If they reach the final, the weight of the club’s history will work in their favour.
Best and worst performers
Best: Rafael Leão, AC Milan
All eyes were on Napolis Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s wing play but it was Milan striker Leão who made the difference with his powerful runs down the left, including the one that led to Giroud’s goal.
Best: Fikayo Tomori, AC Milan
The AC Milan and England defender was tasked with marking Victor Osimhen and kept Napoli’s star striker quiet throughout the night. Osimhen might not have been fit but Tomori gave him nothing alongside the impressive Simon Kjaer.
Best: Alex Meret, Napoli
Napoli would have been dead and buried at half-time in that tie had the goalkeeper not saved Giroud’s crucial saves, the first from a penalty and the second from the Milan striker’s powerful close-in shot.
Worst: Amir Rrahmani, Napoli
He easily let Rafael Leão slip past him ahead of Giroud’s goal in the first half. Had to be stronger and more determined.
Worst: Mario Rui, Napoli
A really bad night for the Napoli left-back. Missed an unnecessary penalty for a foul on Rafael Leão and hobbled out minutes later with an injury.
Worst: Tanguy Ndombele, Naples
A big request to follow in the suspended Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s footsteps and he struggled to make some kind of impact. Didn’t look fit enough to worry Milan.
Highlights and notable moments
Just before half-time, Milan doubled their overall lead. Olivier Giroud finished the goal, but let’s be clear: the architect of the goal was Rafael Leão, and Rafael Leão only with his incredible run to bypass pretty much the entire Napoli defense.
THIS RUN BY RAFAEL LEÃO TO SET UP OLIVER GIROUD. 😤 pic.twitter.com/BAcU8kdZe7
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 18, 2023
Napoli kept pressing and it seemed like they found their lifeline in the 80th minute when they were awarded a penalty for a handling error.
But it shouldn’t be. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s free-kick was saved by Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan.
Mike Maignan shows up big for Milan. 🧱 pic.twitter.com/AM5Bg1uoPj
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 18, 2023
Key Statistics (provided by ESPN Stats & Information Research)
Milan are in the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since winning the tournament in 2006/07.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has missed two of his last three penalties this season (previously scored two goals).
Milan have the most counterattacks in UCL this season (3). Two of them were against Napoli in the quarterfinals.
Olivier Giroud scored his fifth Champions League goal this season, level on points his second-highest goal in a single Champions League season (six goals 2020-21, fifth goals 2015-16).
Giroud is the first Milan player to score five Champions League goals in a single season since Zlatan Ibrahimovic also scored five in 2011/12.
Giroud had converted every one of his last 17 penalties for club and country (excluding penalties). It is his first failed attempt since September 26, 2012 as a member of Arsenal.
Rafael Leão’s assist was his 20th goal this season (the most by any Milan player in any competition).
Naples: Gli Azzurri refocus on Serie A in Italy and visit Juventus on Sunday April 23 at 2:45pm ET.
Milan: I Rossoneri host Lecce in Serie A on Sunday April 23 at 12pm ET.