AC Milan put in a spirited performance, but ultimately, it was the La Liga side that took home the spoils in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 match-up. Milan were unfortunate to have succumbed to high flying Atletico after Diego Costa’s goal gave them the lead with only seven minutes left on the clock. Clarence Seedorf -three time winner of the UEFA Champions League as a player - was making his debut as a manager in the tournament, but Milan’s failure to make use of a number of chances saw them defeated on the night, putting their European hopes on a knife edge.
However, it was the away side who put Milan on the back foot in the early stages of the match. The Spaniards were looking to take advantage of the hosts stuttering form this season but stout defending ensured that Milan survived the early surge of pressure.
The first real goalmouth incident came on the quarter hour mark, when Kaka saw his terrific curling effort deflected onto the crossbar. And just moments later Milan were denied by the woodwork again, this time Adel Taarabt - like his manager, experiencing a Champions League first - whipped in a delicious free kick that was glanced goal-ward by Andrea Poli, only to be tipped onto the base of the goal by Courtois.
The intensity in the pitch eventually boiled over when Emiliano Insua slid in dangerously on Mattia De Sciglio, resulting in a bit of touchline shenanigans as well as an injury to De Sciglio, who was replaced by Ignazio Abate. On the half hour mark, Kaka was denied once more by the frame of the goal. Set up brilliantly by Balotelli’s backheel flick, the Brazilian’s shot skimmed the top of the crossbar with Courtois stranded.
Atletico then almost went ahead against the run of play when Diego Costa was denied at the last by Abate. The Spanish international would have had an easy tap in from six yards out had it not been for the substitute. Just before half time, Milan had strong appeals for a penalty waved away by referee Proença. Poli was clumsily hacked by Raul Garcia just as the Italian was shaping up to volley at goal. The stadium erupted in disbelief as the Portuguese referee waved play on.
The second half began with both sides looking to break the deadlock, Diego Costa lost his marker but his acrobatic attempt was well over. Taarabt ran with the ball before his shot was smothered by a herd of Atleti defenders and Kaka once more saw his efforts to give Milan a breakthrough narrowly miss.
There were more half chances as both sides pushed on but it eventually became clear that Milan couldn’t sustain their intensity much longer, coinciding with many turnovers. There was more space to exploit for the away side, who looked to win the ball high up the pitch and counter quickly. Raul Garcia, who took a nasty gash to the shin, got in front of Adil Rami but skied his effort after good work from Simeone’s men down the right side of the pitch.
Eventually, Atletico found their breakthrough. A corner from the right was deflected to the far post via Abate, and Diego Costa reacted brilliantly to head in at Abbiati’s near post. The big front man somehow managed to generate enough power in his header despite having to back track to reach the ball.
Atletico have scored countless goals from corner kicks this season, and with Milan’s frailties in dealing with corners themselves this campaign, it wasn’t that much of a shock that Simeone’s men found a way to goal from a set piece.
Milan tried to stage a comeback but were visibly disheartened. Adil Rami smashed his free kick just wide of Courtois’s goal and the Frenchman saw himself booked after cynically stopping a strong run by Diego Costa. The resulting free kick from Gabi was sent into the wall, proving to be the final piece of action in a very close and hard-fought match.
Atletico now hold a very strong position in the tie having scored that late goal, with their hopes of Champions League glory still very much alive. On the other hand, Milan face an uphill task of trying to make the next round but will no doubt be buoyed by the spirit shown by Seedorf’s side.