AC Milan 1-0 Napoli - Hosts edge big-hitting Serie A encounter as ...
Theo Hernandez’s goal proved the difference in a tight but entertaining affair between AC Milan and Napoli that saw the hosts stay unbeaten in Serie A in 2024.
Walter Mazzarri experimented with a 3-5-1-1 from kick-off that gave Khvicha Kvaratskhelia - Napoli’s saviour last time out - a free role behind Giovanni Simeone and the Georgian was his side’s most dangerous threat early on.
He almost set up the striker to hit the opener but after that shot slammed into the post, Napoli struggled to break down their hosts who took advantage after 25 minutes when Hernandez finished off a clinical counter attack for the game’s only goal.
Napoli reverted to a 4-3-3 after the break and it was a wonder that the second half remained scoreless with both sides creating plenty of chances as the game broke open.
But ultimately AC Milan held on and move just a point behind Juventus at least for 24 hours, with both on tonight's teams returning to European action in the next fortnight.
Milan will hope to convert more of their chances into goals against Rennes in the Europa League playoff round but should take heart from the manner that they cut Napoli open time after time.
Samu Chukwueze is also set to return but Hernandez’s goal - the result of some slick interplay between the full-back, Olivier Giroud and Rafeal Leao - seemed to ignite the hosts after the first quarter and they could’ve added to it before the break.
Napoli’s reset took both midfields out of the game for periods of an end-to-end second half but Milan still had the better of the chances - though directed one at their own goal when Jan-Carlo Simic was just a post’s width away gifting his guests a draw at the death.
The Azzurri also lacked the cutting edge that Giroud, Leao and Hernandez showed so brilliantly to decide the game but there is a silver lining there as Victor Osimhen will finally return from the Africa Cup of Nations after defeat in the final - for potentially his last few months in Naples.
Talking point: Napoli find themselves as Mazzarri experiment fails
Napoli enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges with plenty of possession in Milan’s half, but were too static with the ball as the hosts defended deep in numbers while they struggled to figure out their shapeshifting opponents.
But after the goal threatened to open the floodgates, it was all-change at half-time with Mazzarri’s subistitutions particularly effective. Matteo Politano - dropped to the bench at the San Siro instantly improved his side’s attacking threat cutting in from the right flank - with Kvaratskhelia restored to the left to do the same in a breathless second period.
The further introductions of Jesper Lindstrom and Mathias Olivera were also effective and the Dane was unlucky not to force an equaliser with the Simic chance, but ultimately Napoli once again couldn’t find the back of the net away from home and that proved the difference. With Barcelona coming up in the Champions League, they’ll hope Osimhen can provide that threat.
Player of the match: Rafael Leao
Did everything except put the ball in the back of the net for AC Milan, Leao was at the heart of everything the hosts did well.
He’s complemented by a more deadly set of teammates in attack than Kvaratskhelia but ironically played the role that the Georgian was given at kick-off better than Kvaratskhelia himself.
Leao found space between defence and midfield throughout the game and always surged forwards with confidence when Milan did feed him, keeping his head up to not only set up Hernandez’s winner, but also provide Pulisic, Giroud, Loftus-Cheek and more with chances in the penalty aread.
That confidence continued to dry up in front of goal, he seemed to overthink a couple of golden opportunities in a way that never appears to concerns him when playing in a teammate for similar chance - but Leao still made the difference in an open and equal encounter.
AC Milan: Maignan 6, Calabria 6, Kjaer 5, Gabbia 6, Hernandez 7, Bennacer 7, Adli 6, Pulisic 7, Loftus-Cheek 6, Leao 8, Giroud 6. Subs: Florenzi 7, Musah 6, Simic 6, Jovic 6, Jimenez 6.
Napoli: Gollini 6, Ostigard 6, Rrahmani 6, Juan 5, Di Lorenzo 6, Anguissa 7, Lobotka 6, Zielinksi 6, Mazzochi 6, Kvaratskhelia 7, Simeone 6. Subs: Politano 7, Raspadori 6, Lindstrom 7, Olivera 7, Cyril Ngonge 6.
11’ - HIT THE POST! That's the chance! Kvaratskhelia beats Matteo Gabbia all ends up in the box and squares it to Simeone, but his shot strikes the post and AC Milan survive with their heartrates suitably quickened.
23’ - CHANCE WASTED: Pulisic should've been in there. Napoli gave the ball away cheaply in midfield an Leao powered forward and for a through ball to send the American into the box. But it was a really poor short-range pass with way too much mustard on and the chance goes begging.
25’ - GOAL! AC MILAN 1-0 NAPOLI (HERNANDEZ): Clinical as you like! Napoli had been the better side but Milan show the cutting edge that the Azzuri were sorely lacking, with a dynamic counter-attack. It was beautifully quick interplay on the left between Theo Hernandez, Leao and Giroud that saw the winger attone for his error just minutes ago and send Hernandez through for the opener!
28’ - THEY WANT MORE: Leao's in the mood now. He's found his range and loosed a curling effort from outside the box and Gollini could only stop at full stretch, before Pulisic is fouled and Milan can line up a dangerous free-kick…
48’ - ALMOST 2-0: Gollini is very relieved to eventually drop on the ball and rightly so, he nearly gave the game away. Florenzi fired a well-hit low shot that swerved into the box that got trapped between the keeper's legs and nearly span straight to Giroud. That probably would've been game over.
70’ - SHOULD'VE SCORED!.. Or at least got it on target. Napoli again gave away possession cheaply in midfield and Leao made a brilliant run on the left to collect Musah's pass. From there he shifts it onto his right foot and looks to curl it around Gollini - which he does, but also a yard past the post.
Napoli’s goal drought extends to five league games away from home, their worst since 1979.
There’s two sides to every story as Mike Maignan picked up his first clean sheet in six games.