AC Milan banishes past ghosts to reach Champions League quarter-finals

AC Milan are into the last eight of the Champions League, banishing European demons and overcoming their poor record against Premier League opposition to get there.

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AC Milan reached the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in 11 years on Wednesday night, as they secured a 1-0 aggregate victory over Tottenham in the Round of 16. Stefano Pioli’s side sealed their progress with a 0-0 second-leg draw in London, after a performance where they controlled much of the game at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Brahim Diaz had given the Rossoneri a one-goal lead to take to English capital when the sides met at the Stadio San Siro, but although that will have given the reigning Serie A champions confidence ahead of the return, it was surprising to see how easily they dominated the 2019 finalists.

When former Atalanta defender Cristian Romero was sent off for a second bookable offence on 78 minutes, for a reckless lunge on Theo Hernandez, it was a sign that Spurs had lost their own confidence in overcoming a Milan side that had played with much more control and discipline on the night.

Theo Hernandez in Champions League action for AC Milan. (@acmilan)

English struggles overcome in London

Although Milan defeated Tottenham in the first leg, they had previously had an awful record against English opposition in Europe and was just their second win against Premier League clubs in 18 games, and had lost eight of their previous 10 fixtures. That their last win in England came against Manchester United in 2004/05, when the Rossoneri were one of Europe’s best teams and reached the final, did not suggest a one-goal lead was enough to take to London.

Having lost five of their last six knockout ties versus English clubs, Milan would have been forgiven for taking a defensive approach, but other than goalkeeper Mike Maignan needing to extend a leg quickly to avoid a deflected Harry Kane cross flashing past him and pushing away a powerful Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg drive, the Frenchman had little to do during the match until a fantastic late save to deny Kane.

Milan form away from San Siro no issue

After four consecutive victories without conceding a goal, many saw the 2-1 defeat by Fiorentina on Saturday night as a minor setback, possibly caused by the Rossoneri having one eye on this battle in the English capital, but also that it highlighted issues on the road this season.

Against the Premier League side, though, the Rossoneri respected their opponents but played without fear, and created several opportunities that could have led to the opening goal. However, Junior Messias was guilty on two occasions within the first 30 minutes of rushing efforts on goal, dragging one low shot well wide of the goalpost and sending another high into the crowd.

AC Milan’s Stadio San Siro. (@acmilan)

Curse of Conte diminishing

Considering Spurs assistant Cristian Stellini was overseeing matters in Milan during the first leg, the return of coach Antonio Conte to the bench in London might have caused concern for Milan, such is his record against the Rossoneri, with him having lost just once as a coach against the Rossoneri, while in charge of crosstown rivals Inter.

While in charge of the Nerazzurri, the 53-year-old tactician took them to the Scudetto and was also undefeated against the Rossoneri when leading Juventus to three consecutive Serie A titles, but many of this young side were unfazed with his success at Inter they would have witnessed firsthand.

Showing that they no longer feared the honours list of the ex-Chelsea boss, they drove forward en masse shortly after the second half began looking for goals and Brahim Diaz eventually saw Tottenham goalkeeper Fraser Forster block a close-range strike and 10 minutes later stood firm to hold a similar effort from Olivier Giroud.

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