AC Milan kept three clean sheets as they qualified from their UEFA Champions League group, and at the heart of their defensive efforts was a man sorely missed in their 1-0 first-leg loss to round of 16 rivals Club Atlético de Madrid – Cristián Zapata.
A thigh injury kept Zapata out of the San Siro opener, but the Colombian international will head to Madrid for Tuesday's return cherishing a dream of emulating the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Nesta by winning the European Cup with Milan. The 27-year-old, who signed permanently last summer after a season-long loan from Villarreal CF, spoke to UEFA.com about what playing at Milan means to him and how Clarence Seedorf is shaping up as coach.
UEFA.com: Growing up in Colombia, was it always your dream to play in the UEFA Champions League one day?
Cristián Zapata: No. I never really thought I would get to play at that level. But thank God I had the opportunity, and I am very happy with everything I have been doing up to now.
UEFA.com: Milan were the dominant force in Europe when you were a child, reaching five finals between 1989 and 1995. What did the club mean to you as an aspiring young footballer?
Zapata: Yes, I followed them a lot. Milan have always been the team in Italy that I liked most. I always dreamt of wearing the shirt. And to be here now is a dream come true. I am so happy to be wearing this shirt.
UEFA.com: Given Milan's prestigious history in the competition, how important is it to re-establish the club as the force it once was in the UEFA Champions League?
Zapata: That is definitely what we are working hard to achieve: to make Milan big again on an international level. It will be hard work, but with the lads we have we will get there.
UEFA.com: Milan has been home to some of the game's greatest defenders, in Maldini, Baresi and Nesta. It must be an honour to be a defender here, but does that come with a certain amount of added pressure?
Zapata: Yes, I think it's a big responsibility. They are players who made history in football and at Milan. I have been trying to make my own history and to give everything I have for this shirt.
UEFA.com: You had played every minute for Milan in the UEFA Champions League this season before injury kept you out against Atlético. Viewed from the back line, what have been the club's strengths in the competition so far?
Zapata: I think in the Champions League we have been very compact and solid. We have always been very careful and given our full concentration. I think this is fundamental, especially when you play over two legs and teams make you pay for any mistakes.
UEFA.com: Milan have a new coach who is a legend in his own right: Clarence Seedorf. How has he settled in?
Zapata: Very well. I think that, as a player, Mr Seedorf was at the very top. And so far he has had a really positive impact. I think he has been coaching us very well. We hope Milan can become a big team again under him.
UEFA.com: What is he like to work with and what impact has his arrival had on the atmosphere at the club?
Zapata: He has very clear ideas. He demonstrates the moves and runs he wants very well. He is a very well-organised person and he is a winner. He likes to win.
UEFA.com: What vision has he brought to the players? What is his mentality and philosophy?
Zapata: His philosophy is that the team has to always go out onto the pitch and be competitive. The team has to be aggressive and push up, especially in defence. He doesn't like the defence to stay too deep. I think that is something positive. I think that gives you the mentality to go out there and look for a good result from the very start of the match.
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