Lethal Leao refinds form in perfect time to keep AC Milan’s Champions League dream alive

AC Milan's last Champions League semi-final appearance came back in 2007, and we all know how that season ended. With Rafael Leao playing at this level again, the Rossoneri might just be starting to dream of similar success.

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Olivier Giroud may have scored AC Milan’s only goal of the game at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Tuesday night, but it was fellow forward Rafael Leao that drove the outgoing Italian champions into a first Champions League semi-final since 2006/07, and we know how that campaign ended. Milan overcame Napoli and a hostile crowd to progress to Europe’s final four.

It must be noted that the Portugal international has largely struggled to match the form that took the Rossoneri to the Serie A title last season as they have sought to defend their crown. Against champions-elect Napoli in recent weeks, though, the 23-year-old has looked determined to destroy his side’s successors all on his own.

After scoring twice in the 4-0 Serie A humiliation, Leao was a constant source of danger in the European first leg and ultimately killed off the quarter-final as a contest when he collected the ball deep within his own half on 43 minutes before running all the way to the Napoli six-yard box, then rolling the ball across for Giroud to give Milan a 2-0 aggregate lead. Victor Osimhen struck late in Naples to make that goal the eventual winner, with Milan claiming a 2-1 aggregate win.

Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring in the Champions League. (@acmilan)

Kjaer and Calabria stand firm

With Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia having scored 47 of Napoli’s 90 goals in all competitions this season, the focus was on how the rested pair would use their power, pace and trickery to overcome a Milan backline that relatively recently had to revert to a 3-4-2-1 to stop conceding.

However, back in coach Stefano Pioli’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, the Rossoneri rearguard withstood the early pressure that Matteo Politano led from Napoli’s right. Before Simon Kjaer and Davide Calabria gave a masterclass in dealing with their individual battles with Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia.

Despite being 10 years his senior, the Danish defender stuck so close to the Nigerian that the no.9 could not find the room to break away on goal and was his equal during their many physical battles. Then, with Politano forced off midway through the first period, more of the Partenopei attack went through Kvaratskhelia. Even when the Georgian wriggled past, though, Milan captain Calabria was able to recover and execute a perfectly timed tackle.

Even when Fikayo Tomori conceded a penalty on 80 minutes to give Kvaratskhelia the chance to pull a goal back from the spot and recover some personal pride, the Georgian struck a powerful shot too close to goalkeeper Mike Maignan, who saved well. The Frenchman was then beaten by an injury-time header from Osimhen to deny Milan a clean sheet.

Meret heroics are not enough for Napoli

Alex Meret of Napoli denies Olivier Giroud from the penalty spot. (@sscnapoli)

The Partenopei’s journey to the Champions League quarter-finals and dominance of Serie A has felt like a coming of age for Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret, and the 26-year-old could so easily have been the hero after saving a Giroud penalty on 23 minutes.

After arriving in Naples from SPAL during the summer of 2018, the Italian custodian almost shared goalkeeping duties with David Ospina, but once the Colombian exited last summer, Meret has shown he wanted the job full-time. Another exceptional save denied the Frenchman again moments later, but those in front of Meret ultimately let him down.

Europe awaits another Derby della Madonnina

AC Milan players Ismael Bennacer, Rafael Leao, Olivier Giroud, Brahim Diaz, Theo Hernandez and others celebrate. (@acmilan)

While Napoli progressing would have also ensured Italian interest, the Rossoneri overcoming their southern rivals has provided the possibility of a mouthwatering all-Milanese semi-final, should crosstown rivals Inter not waste a two-goal first-leg lead over Benfica.

It is 20 years since the last Derby della Madonnina in a Champions League semi-final, when Milan edged past the Nerazzurri on away goals after a 1-1 second-leg draw, and Rossoneri fans will also hope that it could prove a lucky omen.

After reaching the final in Manchester back in 2003, club legend Paolo Maldini ended the season lifting the famous trophy after a penalty shootout win over Juventus. Similarly, AC Milan’s last semi-final appearance came in 2007, again going on to lift the trophy by beating Liverpool in that season’s final.

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