NAPLES, Italy: Serie A champions last season. A Champions League semifinalist this season.
AC Milan are regaining their pedigree as a European power after a turbulent stretch marked by the end of Silvio Berlusconi’s ownership and financial issues.
The seven-time continental champion reached the last four of the Champions League with a 1-1 draw at Napoli on Tuesday with a first-half goal from Olivier Giroud proving decisive.
Also, Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan blocked a late penalty from Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Napoli’s standout winger, with Giroud also having a penalty kick saved before his goal.
Victor Osimhen equalized for Napoli with a header in stoppage time.
Milan advanced on 2-1 aggregate in the all-Italian matchup after beating the runaway Serie A leader 1-0 in the first leg.
“Everyone thought we were the underdogs, but we have a lot of heart, we put everything into this,” Milan coach Stefano Pioli said.
Milan’s semifinal opponent will be either city rival Inter Milan or Benfica. Inter hold a 2-0 advantage entering the second leg against the Portuguese club at the San Siro on Wednesday.
Real Madrid eliminated Chelsea on the other half of the draw in the night’s other matchup.
Giroud scored two minutes before the break with a goal that was largely produced by the work of Milan’s prized winger Rafael Leão.
Leao gained possession in Milan’s own half and slalomed his way past Napoli’s entire defense before unselfishly picking out the unmarked Giroud to slot home into an empty net after pulling goalkeeper Alex Meret out of position.
Earlier, Meret had been the star, first by swatting away a penalty from Giroud that Leao had earned then blocking yet another clear look from Giroud, who was France’s starting center forward for the World Cup final loss to Argentina.
Napoli had Serie A scoring leader Osimhen back from a thigh muscle injury that kept him out of the first leg.
The hosts started out in full control but had trouble getting the ball to Osimhen, while Milan relied on counterattacks.
The scene inside the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona was electric at the start following a truce over the weekend between protesting fans and Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis over high ticket prices and other issues.
But in the end, it was the small pocket of Milan fans making more noise, singing and stomping their feet in unison so hard that the stadium was rocking back and forth.
“I’m happy for our fans, who supported us when things were not going well,” Pioli said. “We’re proud to have fans like this.”
Milan’s seven European Cup and Champions League titles rank second only to Madrid’s 14 but the Rossoneri last raised the trophy back in 2007.
Milan’s Serie A title last year was also its first in a while — since 2011.
Berlusconi had controlled Milan for more than 30 years before selling to a Chinese consortium in 2017. US-based hedge fund Elliott Management took over the following year then the club was sold to another American investment firm, RedBird Capital Partners, last year.
Milan voluntarily removed itself from the 2019-20 Europa League to deal with financial fair play violations and only returned to the Champions League last season after a seven-season absence.
It might seem like old times again in Milan if the Rossoneri face 2010 champion Inter in a European derby.
Napoli, meanwhile, can now focus on closing out its first Serie A title in more than 30 years, since Maradona led the southern club to its only two Italian league championships in 1987 and 1990.
“We had a great run, but we could have done more,” midfielder Piotr Zielinski said of his team’s Champions League campaign before turning attention to Serie A. “This should motivate us to finish the season well. We still haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Napoli holds a seemingly insurmountable 14-point lead over Lazio with eight rounds remaining.
Maradona also led Napoli to its only European title in 1989 when the club won the second-tier UEFA Cup. This was Napoli’s first Champions League quarterfinal.