AC Milan delivered a classic performance at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona to defeat Napoli and book their place in the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2007.
I Rossoneri went south with a 1-0 aggregate lead and they doubled that when a 50 meter run by Rafael Leão was finished by Oliver Giroud.
It wasn’t about the goal at the end of the night, but the performance by Stefano Pioli’s players who executed a plan with perfection at the home of one of the most inform teams in European football.
AC Milan execute perfect game plan v Napoli
Before tonight, Napoli had lost just one game in the Champions League this season, that was against Liverpool when they were already qualified for the next round.
They also scored 20 goals in the group stage and battered Eintracht Frankfurt 5-0 on aggregate in the Round of 16. Even though they lost at the San Siro, but there was a genuine sense that they were going to turn things around in the second leg.
AC Milan responded by putting on a masterful performance, that was clearly inspired by the old ways of catenaccio. The defended from deep inside their own half and made every counter attack count.
Theo Hernandez, Fikayo Tomori, Simon Kjær were camped inside their own box while six other players covered space in front of them. Davide Calabria had the most versatile role as he was tasked with doubling up on the right hand side with Rade Krunić.
This left Napoli with no clear cut route to goal and any attempt to play through the centre meant they had to try and beat a red and black wall.
It was evident what they were trying to do was working midway through the first half as only one of Napoli’s eight shots was on target.
When opportunities came to break, they won a penalty and Giroud saw his spot kick saved. Their next counter attack came from Leão and the French striker finished this move to double his side’s lead.
Rafael Leao, that is OUTRAGEOUS 🔥
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— Balls.ie (@ballsdotie) April 18, 2023
It wasn’t all defending and breaking, AC pushed high up when Napoli tried to play out from the back and a combination of Giroud and Ismaël Bennacer helped rush any decisions from the home side.
This all contributed to a AC Milan grinding it out and getting a win that means they are one tie away from their first European final since 2007.
The spiritual puppet master on the night was Nereo Rocco, the godfather of catenaccio who won them a clean sweep of silverware in the 1960s with Milan.
He deployed a 1–3–3–3 formation that included a sweeper operating behind a back three. These teams specialised in counter attacks and long balls that were designed to catch teams out after they push up.
Milan embodied that tradition on Tuesday night. It was an archetypal European performance from a club hunting for their eighth star, and they showed no signs of wavering in the bubbling cauldron that is the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona
Napoli dominated possession but could only force five shots on target. Nine ended up off target, nine were wide, and Milan’s goalkeeper only had to make four saves. This was with the hosts having 62% of the ball, 16 corners, and crossing 46 times.
All Victor Osimhen’s equaliser did was spark some thoughts of a late, almost unthinkable, comeback. Milan did not mind as there were seconds left and they had done enough up until that point to make sure they were through to the semi-finals.