AC Milan's unbeaten start to 2018 carried into the Europa League as Patrick Cutrone, Ricardo Rodriguez and Fabio Borini fired them to a 3-0 victory at Ludogorets on Thursday.
Gennaro Gattuso's men had won four and drawn two of their six matches in all competitions ahead of their trip to Bulgaria, and Cutrone's 13th goal of the season set them on the road to a comfortable win.
Rodriguez added a penalty before Borini struck in stoppage time to give the Serie A side an enviable cushion heading into the second leg of the last-32 tie.
Cutrone's headed opener came at the end of a first half in which both sides struggled to create clear-cut opportunities, but Milan had one foot in the next round when Cosmin Moti was deemed to have pushed the striker in the box.
Rodriguez stepped up to fire home Milan's second and it is difficult to see a way back for Ludogorets after Borini came off the bench to make it 3-0.
Franck Kessie sent a low drive wide of the right-hand post after three minutes but Milan were left breathing a sigh of relief when Jody Lukoki curled a free-kick just off target from a narrow angle, with Ignazio Abate having clumsily brought down Virgil Misidjan on the edge of the box.
Milan's patient passing produced few opportunities until Cutrone had an effort deflected wide from close range after the visitors worked the ball into a dangerous area.
When Ludogorets pressed it was invariably on the counter-attack and Jakub Swierczok should have done better than to completely miss the ball when Lucas Sasha whipped in a fantastic left-wing cross that was begging to be headed home.
Suso fired a free-kick just over from the right side of the box and Giacomo Bonaventura squandered another opportunity as the half appeared destined to end goalless and without either side having registered a shot on target.
However, on the stroke of half-time, a well-worked corner routine saw Cutrone beat goalkeeper Renan with a glancing header from a Hakan Calhanoglu delivery.
Relive all the action from the first half at the Ludogorets Arena with the photo gallery of the match https://t.co/tBRgoI6BdD
Rivivi il primo tempo di #LUDACM con la gallery della partita https://t.co/plPVFwssnl pic.twitter.com/GLU0Y3GTqe — AC Milan (@acmilan) February 15, 2018
That opening goal demanded a more attacking approach from the home side and Marcelinho drew a save from Gianluigi Donnarumma before Svetoslav Dyakov rattled the crossbar with a shot from outside the box.
The offside flag scuppered Sasha's appeals for a penalty after he went down under a heavy challenge from Abate, and Ludogorets were on the receiving end of a spot-kick call when Moti shoved Cutrone at the other end, with Rodriguez dispatching the ball into the bottom-left corner.
Milan's second took any remaining wind out of Ludogorets' sails and Borini fired in the third from the centre of the box in the closing stages to strike a seemingly fatal blow to any Bulgarian dreams of progression.
Key Opta stats:
- AC Milan are unbeaten in their last nine games in all competitions (W6 D3), their longest run since March 2016.
- Over their last two fixtures, Gennaro Gattuso’s side have conceded just one shot on target.
- The Rossoneri have won each of their last six matches against Bulgarian sides, keeping five clean sheets in the process.
- Patrick Cutrone has scored 13 goals this season in all competitions, at least five more than any other AC Milan player.