By Graham Hunter at the San Siro
Holders AC Milan eased into the last eight of the UEFA Champions League with a routine but effective 4-1 second-leg victory against AC Sparta Praha.
On a bitterly cold night, Carlo Ancelotti's team showed few signs of relinquishing their hold on the trophy, but they needed a moment of penalty-box brilliance from Filippo Inzaghi to send them on their way. Two second-half Andriy Shevchenko goals and a late strike from Gennaro Gattuso made the game safe after Tomáš Jun's away goal had startled the Rossoneri into action.
The holders had worked brutally hard but without inspiration for the first quarter of the match. Sparta had a clear game plan but seemed to lack both conviction and clarity of ideas despite coach Jirí Kotrba using a straightforward 4-4-1-1 formation. Clear roles were given to Tomáš Sivok in man-marking Kaká, Petr Johana in covering Inzaghi and Jirí Štajner the lone striker.
Milan's set-up, as usual, was designed to give Kaká a platform to work across the pitch ahead of the industrial coalface of Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini. But although the match was perilously balanced, particularly for Milan should Sparta score an away goal, there was little sign of urgency.
Gattuso was the first to hit the target for either side in the 16th minute but Jaromír Blazek saved easily. It took until the half-hour mark for Sparta to do the same, Tomáš Hübschman pushing forward from central defence to shoot from Štajner's pass.
The best chances of the half were well worked down Milan's left. Milan full-back Giuseppe Pancaro found Shevchenko at the back post in the 34th minute and his delicate header made an opening for Inzaghi. The Italian international stooped to glance his header past Blazek but the Czech keeper narrowed the angle well. Pancaro repeated the trick with a neat lob into the path of Ambrosini, who had run free from midfield, but he failed with a simple chance as he nodded wide from five metres out.
When the goal came, two minutes into added time at the end of the first half, it was from a moment of brilliance from Inzaghi. Cafu placed a cross from the right to the near post and Inzaghi, darting in front of Johana, back-flicked a looping header over Blazek and in off the bar.
The big shock came just before the hour. Kotrba had replaced the ineffective Lukáš Zelenka with Jun and two minutes later he scored. Alessandro Nesta made his first error of the night, losing possession to Rastislav Michalík on the right touchline and before he could make a recovering tackle, the winger burst forward and whipped in a low cross. Jun had drifted behind Paolo Maldini and Michalík's pass was so good that the substitute's outstretched right boot sent the ball flying past Dida for that away goal.
It took just seven minutes for the holders to hit back, Pancaro's first-time cross flying to the back post, over Vladimír Labant, where Shevchenko was running in to nod in.
With eleven minutes left Kaká finally lost his marker, chipped the ball over the overly flat Sparta back four and the Ukrainian striker ran on to whip the ball past Blazek. As the floodgates opened Gattuso's late run and shot left Johana helplessly deflecting the ball into his own net to make Milan's win complete.
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