Olivier Giroud sent AC Milan into the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday by scoring the decisive goal in a 2-1 quarterfinal aggregate win against Napoli.
After Milan won the first leg 1-0 at San Siro last week, Giroud’s first-half goal in the second leg — after having an earlier penalty saved — was the series-decider due to Napoli’s Victor Osimhen scoring in stoppage time for the Serie A leaders.
Prior to Osimhen’s headed goal three minutes into stoppage time, Napoli’s best chance came late in the second half when Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan saved Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s penalty. Had that spot-kick gone in, Napoli might just have been able to rescue the tie, but Milan held on to make it to the last four.
1. AC Milan’s smart performance (and a possible Milan derby) heap pressure on Inter
Olivier Giroud’s first-half goal against Napoli and a defensive masterclass led by Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjaer secured AC Milan’s first Champions League semifinal appearance since 2006-07 and upped the pressure on city rivals Internazionale to confirm an all-Milan derby for place in the final.
Inter Milan, 2-0 up against Benfica following last week’s first leg in Lisbon, are strong favourites to finish the job in the San Siro on Wednesday and ensure a first Milan derby in the semifinals since the 2002-03 season, when AC Milan progressed on away goals before beating Juventus in the final in Manchester.
But AC Milan claimed the first Milanese spot in the semifinals by upsetting the odds to defeat runaway Serie A leaders Napoli over two legs. A narrow 1-0 win in the first leg gave AC Milan something to hold onto in the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona and they did it with a defensive display 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 nullify Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, who looked short of fitness in his first game for almost a month following a groin injury before scoring deep into stoppage time, while Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan was rock-solid long before saving 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, albeit none were clear opportunities to score. But after Giroud had first-half penalty saved by Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret, he put Milan in control by scoring from Rafael Leão’s cross shortly before half-time.
Napoli lacked the energy to haul themselves back into the tie, so it is Milan that make it to the last four and what is likely to be a box office Derby della Madonnina against Inter.
2. Kvaratskhelia’s struggles sum up Napoli’s fading magic
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia will be awarded a spot on any “team of the season” lists as a result of his incredible performances for Napoli in his debut campaign at the club — but he has faded badly in recent weeks, and his loss of form has coincided with that of his team.
Napoli will go on to win Serie A this season — their first Scudetto since 1990 — but they never looked close to beating Milan over the two legs of this quarterfinal, despite being 22 points ahead of the Rossoneri in the Italian league table.
Injuries and suspensions derailed their Champions League hopes, with Victor Osimhen, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Kim Min-jae and Giovanni Simeone all missing one or both legs of this tie. Napoli also lost Mario Rui and Matteo Politano to injury in the first half of this second leg, so manager Luciano Spalletti had to deal with major personnel problems that would have weakened any team in the world.
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Georgia winger Kvaratskhelia was fit and selected for both legs of this tie, but although he had plenty of the ball, there was none of the explosive pace or goal threat from earlier in the season.
In 35 games in all competitions for Napoli, he has delivered 14 goals and 16 assists, which are world-class statistics.
But after having his 81st-minute penalty saved by Maignan, this was the sixth straight game in which he failed to score or create a goal, so it is clear that Kvaratskhelia has hit a wall.
He has still been a star of the season, but the final weeks of the season seem to be a step too far for him and Napoli.
3. Milan tantalisingly close to Champions League redemption in Istanbul
The 2005 Champions League final has since become known to some as the Miracle of Istanbul because of Liverpool’s incredible fightback from a 3-0 half-time deficit to beat AC Milan on penalties at the Ataturk Stadium. While that game is celebrated in Liverpool, it remains a scar on the psyche of Milan.
But the Rossoneri are now within reach of a return to Istanbul for this year’s final and the chance to claim redemption for what happened 18 years ago in the same stadium.
At the start of this season, few would have tipped Milan to go all the way to final. Even the team’s most ardent supporters would have found it difficult to mount a convincing argument to suggest Stefano Pioli’s team would make it to Istanbul.
But Milan now have the feel of a team who believe they can go all the way. They are a club steeped in Champions League history — only Real Madrid have won the competition more times — and they will now be desperate to return to Istanbul to avenge 2005.
Former captain Paolo Maldini, who five Champions Leagues with Milan, is now back at San Siro as technical director and, having played in the 2005 final against Liverpool, will be determined to be back in Istanbul to bury his own memories of that night.
Don’t write this Milan team off. 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 the wing play of Napoli’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, but it was Milan forward Leão who made all 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 handed the task of marking Victor Osimhen and he kept Napoli’s star forward quiet all night. Osimhen may have been short of fitness, but Tomori, alongside the impressive Simon Kjaer, gave him nothing.
Best: Alex Meret, Napoli
Napoli would have been dead and buried in this tie by half-time but for the goalkeeper’s crucial saves from Giroud, the first from a penalty and the second from the Milan forward’s powerful close-range shot.
Worst: Amir Rrahmani, Napoli
Allowed Rafael Leão to glide past him easily in the build up for Giroud’s goal in the first half. Needed to be stronger and more decisive.
Worst: Mario Rui, Napoli
A really bad night for the Napoli left-back. Gave away a needless penalty for a foul on Rafael Leão and then had to limp out of the game minutes later with an injury.
Worst: Tanguy Ndombele, Napoli
A big ask to step into the shoes of the suspended Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and he struggled to have any kind of impact. Didn’t look fit enough to worry Milan.
Highlights and notable moments
Shortly before halftime, Milan doubled their aggregate lead. Olivier Giroud finished the goal, but let’s be clear: the goal’s architect was Rafael Leão, and Rafael Leão only with his incredible run to bypass pretty much all of Napoli’s defense.
THIS RUN FROM RAFAEL LEÃO TO SET UP OLIVER GIROUD. ???? pic.twitter.com/BAcU8kdZe7
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 18, 2023
Napoli continued pushing and it seemed like they found their lifeline in the 80th minute, when they were awarded a penalty because of a handling violation.
But it wasn’t to be. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s spot kick was saved by Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan.
Mike Maignan shows up huge for Milan. ???? pic.twitter.com/AM5Bg1uoPj
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 18, 2023
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
Milan advance to Champions League semifinals for the first time since winning the tournament in 2006-07.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has missed two of his past three penalty attempts this season (scored previous two).
Milan have the most counterattack goals in UCL this season (3). Two of those have been against Napoli in the quarterfinals.
Olivier Giroud scored his fifth Champions League goal this season, tied for his second most in a single Champions League campaign (six in 2020-21, fifth in 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 each of his past 17 penalty kicks taken for club and country (excluding shootouts). It’s his first failed attempt since Sept. 26, 2012 as a member of Arsenal.
Rafael Leão’s assist was his 20th goal contribution of the season (most by any Milan player in all competitions).
Napoli: Gli Azzurri turn their focus back to Serie A in Italy, and they will visit Juventus on Sunday, April 23 at 2:45 p.m. ET.
Milan: I Rossoneri host Lecce in Serie A on Sunday, April 23 at 12 p.m. ET.