Napoli-Milan Had A Double Dose Of Stunning Penalty Saves
10:23 AM EDT on April 19, 2023
Penalty kicks are skewed massively towards the attacking player. Depending on the foul that garnered the spot kick, this is a fair tradeoff: If a defender brings down an attacker in the box as he's about to shoot on goal, the attacker should be rewarded for causing that chaos. Of course, penalties are also given for ticky-tack handballs or flops, and the penalty skew becomes more unfair. For the most part, though, these high intensity moments are as close as playing with house money as a goalkeeper can get. If he doesn't save the penalty, that stinks but the team moves on, and no one blames him for his defenders' mistakes.If, on the other hand, he saves it? Then the goalie is a hero among men, a clutch performer of nigh invulnerable status.
On Tuesday, there were two such heroes in Naples, one on each side, as both Alex Meret, of the hosts scrambling for a comeback win, and Mike Maignan, of an AC Milan side clinging to a 1-0 lead in the aggregate tie entering the second leg, saved penalty kicks that could have swung the entire quarterfinal of the Champions League in their respective team's favor.
It was Meret's turn to be in the penalty kick meat grinder first: In the 21st minute, Napoli left back Mário Rui mistimed his tackle in the box on the always dangerous Rafael Leão, taking out his countryman pretty clearly and obviously. This gave Milan's Olivier Giroud a chance to ice the tie early; a tally from the spot would have given Milan a 2-0 lead before Tuesday's match got out of their control.
That's when Meret came into play, though, correctly guessing that Giroud would go to the goalkeeper's left with his kick. Meret got a good amount of push-off on his dive to save it with the center of his mass, keeping Napoli just one goal back with about 70 minutes left to play:
Unfortunately for Meret, there wasn't much he could do against Giroud in the 43rd minute. Well, in reality, there wasn't much anyone on Napoli could do, or did do, against Leão, as the Portuguese winger took the ball deep in his own half and out-ran three Napoli defenders, drew a fourth towards him as he reached the host's box, and then calmly deposited a cut-back to a wide open Giroud at the top of the six-yard box. Meret had already committed to covering off Leão, so there was nothing left but the sadness for Napoli:
Or so I thought! The thing about this season's Napoli is that it is a very good side, capable of dominating a match even when scrambling for a flotation device. And so the blue-kitted side kept charging forward, dominating 74 percent of the possession on the night, and blanketing Milan with 23 shots in total. The problem for Napoli was that only four of those actually hit the target. Despite creating chance after chance, Napoli couldn't really settle enough to get the ball into the net. Milan had better chances with its scraps of the ball, including one that forced a beautiful Meret kick-save to deny Giroud shortly after the penalty:
And so the match went, with Napoli poking and prodding in search of the two goals it needed to push this tie into extra time, while Milan hunkered down and tried to release the pressure via Leão in order to really kill things off. That's where everything stood in the 80th minute, when Giovanni Di Lorenzo's low cross was blocked by Fikayo Tomori's arm as the English defender went to the ground. Credit to the referee for once again seeing a clear penalty and calling it on the field. Napoli had its moment to make this a real scramble to the end.
Up stepped Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, Napoli's 22-year-old megastar-in-the-making, with both his own vast talents and the roughly 75 percent success rate for attackers in his corner. No matter for Maignan, though, as the Frenchman dove perfectly to his right, blocking the Georgian's low shot and sending it safely out of play for a corner kick:
Though Napoli's Victor Osimhen did eventually open the scoring for his side, it came on a 93rd minute header and felt immediately like a consolation goal. Maignan wasn't called upon to create magic as often as "23 shots total" would have one believe, but when he was needed, such as on the penalty or in any of his three other saves, he was there to shut Napoli out until it pretty much did not matter. Credit to Meret as well for his save to keep Napoli in it. There are few things more fun, if also more rare, than two goalies who stand on their heads to save penalty kicks with such force and confidence. On Tuesday in Naples, Meret and Maignan did just that, and they both kept the drama alive for as long as possible in a tie that never saw either side separate itself enough for comfort.