By Graham Hunter in Milan
AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti praised his side's resilience as they found an extra gear to double their UEFA Champions League goalscoring tally for the season with a 4-1 destruction of AC Sparta Praha.
A total of four strikes in the opening seven games of their trophy defence had hinted at a Rossoneri goalscoring problem, but the holders, helped in no small part by two-goal Andriy Shevchenko, silenced their doubters in the San Siro to move into the quarter-finals in style. "When Sparta equalised it was crucial that we took the lead again quickly," said a satisfied Ancelotti.
Beyond the significance of making the last eight, Shevchenko's strikes marked his first double in the Champions League since joining Milan in 1999. "It feels good to have done that for the first time since I was a [FC] Dinamo Kyiv player," said the Ukrainian. "
That was hard breaking down their packed defence - it reminded me of beating [AFC] Ajax 3-2 in the quarter-final last season. But now this team has the quality to go on and win both Serie A and the Champions League."
For all the flair of the last 30 minutes, this game was testimony to a basic gameplan well applied by Jirí Kotrba's visiting team. Sparta worked hard and intelligently but were eventually beaten by Ancelotti's talented squad, which was also willing to match the Czech side's work-rate. "The difficulties we encountered were because they are a well-balanced team who defended well," added Ancelotti. "But we did our job without too many worries."
Kotrba left the stadium with regrets, despite the quality of his team's display in the first hour. He had asked his team to close space and counterattack - but emphasised that any chance which came their way had to be converted. "I thought it was a totally avoidable goal we conceded to [Filippo] Inzaghi just before half-time," he said. "But until then we had defended with brains.
Shevchenko's goals killed off our hope. I told the lads that Milan has the best defence in the Champions League and we had to convert any chance. So the fact that we had an opportunity to make it 2-2 not long before Shevchenko made it 3-1 is a regret."
It was Jirí Štajner's 74th-minute flicked header that led to Pavel Pergl shooting just over to which he was referring. Four minutes later Shevchenko headed in and after Gennaro Gattuso made it 4-1 with 85 minutes on the clock, the celebrations began in earnest.
Sparta scorer Tomáš Jun, who had levelled after Inzaghi's superb 45th-minute looping header, said: "We had a good 60 minutes followed by a tough 30 minutes. I'm happy about my goal but not about the scoreline. I wish we had taken our chance to make it 2-2."
Defender Petr Johana, from whose foot the fourth goal deflected, added: "I think if it had gone to 2-2 so quickly after they had scored, Milan would have crumbled." But the holders went through, and their bid to retain the trophy is gathering pace.
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