AC Milan's French forward Olivier Giroud (L), AC Milan's French defender Theo Hernandez (2ndL), AC Milan's Spanish midfielder Brahim Diaz (R) and teammates acknowledge the public at the end of the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals first leg football match between AC Milan and SSC Napoli on April 12, 2023 at the San Siro stadium in Milan | Photo: AFP
MILAN: AC Milan beat Napoli for the second time in the space of less than two weeks — and this time with more at stake — as the Rossoneri won 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal on Wednesday.
Ismaël Bennacer scored shortly before the end of a first half that Napoli had dominated for long stretches. Both teams also hit the crossbar before Napoli midfielder André-Frank Zambo Anguissa was sent off 16 minutes from time, following two yellow cards in quick succession.
The teams will meet again in Naples next Tuesday with the winner to play either Inter Milan or Benfica in the semifinals. Inter won the first leg of their quarterfinal 2-0.
Anguissa will be suspended for that match, as will Kim Min-jae after the defender was booked at San Siro.
“I don’t know what to say about the refereeing, it was something incredible,” Napoli midfielder Eljif Elmas said. “He booked all our players, they committed the same type of fouls but didn’t get yellow cards.
“It’s something I’ve never seen before. It was also because of that that at a certain point we became nervous on the field.”
While Milan's victory was not as comprehensive as its 4-0 rout of Napoli when the two teams met in Serie A on April 2, it left the club in pole position to reach its first Champions League semifinal since it won the last of its seven titles in 2007.
“It’s still 50-50, the result is certainly a bonus bit it doesn’t change much, there’s still all to play for,” Milan coach Stefano Pioli said.
“We’re halfway up the mountain but normally the last few bends are the hardest to overcome. A hard match awaits us in Naples … none of us think we’re already through.”
The match pitted the defending Italian champion against the team likely to take its trophy, with Napoli boasting a 16-point in Serie A.
It was Napoli’s first ever appearance in the quarterfinals and it was without a recognized striker as leading Serie A goalscorer Victor Osimhen and Giovanni Simeone were out injured and coach Luciano Spalletti opted to start Giacomo Raspadori on the bench and play Elmas in the false nine position.
Nevertheless, the visitors got off to an aggressive start and had four clearcut opportunities in as many minutes.
The best of those was after only 50 seconds as Milan failed to deal with a cross and a horrible Rade Krunic clearance fell straight to Napoli dangerman Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. But Krunic atoned for his error by clearing the shot off the line and Mário Rui ballooned the follow-up over.
Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan also came to his team’s rescue several time before the Rossoneri had their first real chance in the 25th minute, completely against the run of play.
Rafael Leão, who had scored two goals in Naples in the league match, raced from inside his own half and past two Napoli players before unleashing a shot that went just the wrong side of the right upright.
The Portuguese forward took his frustration out on the corner flag, shattering it in the process.
Milan broke the deadlock five minutes from halftime as Brahim Díaz sped forward from midfield and laid the ball off to the right of the area to Leão. His attempt at a one-two didn’t quite come off but it came through to Bennacer to fire into the top near corner.
That was only Milan’s second attempt compared to Napoli’s eight.
The Rossoneri almost doubled their lead in stoppage time but Simon Kjær’s thumping header came off the underside of the bar and bounced just the wrong side of the line for Milan.
Napoli should have leveled five minutes after the break but Maignan finger-tipped an Elmas header onto the bar. Its chances of doing so diminished when Anguissa was shown a second yellow card for a high tackle on Theo Hernández four minutes after being booked for a foul on the same Milan defender.
Real Madrid beat Chelsea 2-0 in the other quarterfinal match on Wednesday.