By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent
AC Milan turned in one of their better performances in recent times, had Atletico Madrid on the back foot for long spells and had the San Siro fans believing again on Wednesday night. But, ultimately, they fell short at key moments and find themselves up against it if they are to qualify for the Champions League quarter-finals.
It was a brave effort from the Rossoneri on Clarence Seedorf’s European debut as a coach, taking it to the joint-leaders of La Liga, but Diego Costa showed them with his late winner that performances are no good without tangible returns.
|MATCH FACTS | Milan 0-1 Atleti
They may have ended up winning 1-0, but Atleti had Thibaut Courtois to thank for Milan not being well out of sight by half-time. First, he somehow tipped a curling effort from Kaka onto the crossbar. He then went one better with a stunning save from Andrea Poli’s close-range header, again pushing the ball against the woodwork.
Kaka later skimmed the top of the bar after good work from Mario Balotelli, and in the second half Adel Taarabt should have done more when given a shooting opportunity at the far post. But as each chance passed them by it felt more and more as though Milan had missed the boat.
While Balotelli put in a much more concerted shift as the lone striker, he lacked support for the most part. That meant his vastly improved hold-up play went largely to waste and the home side’s territorial advantage often led to nothing.
The Rossoneri were guilty of not upping the ante when they were on top. While they were the better side, it was hardly a siege. The response to Courtois’ excellence was not to give him more work at shorter intervals. There was no stepping on the throat when the going was good. Milan, put simply, failed to bully the visitors when the time was right.
Costa’s magnificent header from a standing jump now puts Atletico in a superb position from which to reach the last eight, and while they may not have shown it for the first 75 minutes, they are the better side of the two.
The Rojiblancos made the most of their chances, scoring the only goal of the game after a rare 10-minute spell in which they ramped up the pace and got in behind Milan on two or three occasions. The Diavolo, meanwhile, have lost their edge. There was a time when they knew exactly how to make the most of the chances they made in European fixtures, but it was not on display tonight and they will need a big turnaround in three weeks’ time if they are to rescue something from the tie.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of," said Daniele Bonera to Mediaset at full-time. "We deserved the lead in the first half and got punished on a set piece after the break. We did everything possible to win this game."
If anything, Bonera's admission and Wednesday’s events only serve to underline just how far Milan have fallen. Sitting 18 points off the Champions League spots and facing an uphill task at the Vicente Calderon, we may only see them play 90 more minutes in the competition until September 2015 at the earliest. If only they’d taken their chances, they might be looking at a far rosier outlook.