By Graham Hunter in Milan
The reigning European champions AC Milan started the defence of their trophy with a hard-fought but thrilling 1-0 victory against AFC Ajax here at the San Siro.
Needing all their attacking armoury, and driven on by a splendid UEFA Champions League debut from recent signing Kaka who replaced Rui Costa, Milan secured their first three points in Group H thanks to their old dependables - a defence marshalled by Paolo Maldini and a moment of penalty-box instinct from Fliippo Inzaghi. The exhilarating night was marred only by the injury-time flare-up which saw Milan's Gennaro Gattuso sent off and Ajax's Zlatan Ibrahimovic booked.
Ajax coach Ronald Koeman, fresh from the memory of how close his team came to qualifying for the semi-finals the last time these two sides met, had opted not for caution but for a suprisingly hostile early assault.
Within the first seven minutes the Dutch champions had threatened three times, twice from Wesley Sonck and from Ibrahimovic’s long-range shot. But all that did was goad the noisy home crowd into further chanting and, equally, the European champions into finding their elegant rythym.
Kaka thriving on the challenge
Milan's young Brazilian FIFA World Cup winner, Kaka, was making his European debut for his new club, but he thrived on the challenge. Allowed a tremendous platform of freedom, thanks to the work-rate of Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo behind him, Kaka roamed left and right, running freely at Ajax's midfield players and defenders.
Milan go close
With 18 minutes gone his clever tempting of Tomáš Galásek and then his nimble skip away allowed Clarence Seedorf a clear shot from inside the box, but the Dutchman opted for a dummy which merely frustrated team-mates and fans alike. Within minutes Pirlo and Inzaghi combined to turn Bogdan Lobont's weak goal kick into a 20-metre shooting chance for Kaka, but the Brazilian's drive fizzed just wide.
Gradually the Dutch reasserted themselves and the game became a thrilling, flowing spectacle. After Rafael van der Vaart's raking free-kick in the 21st minute was touched away, Hatem Trabelsi dribbled past half the Milan defence but shot into the midriff of Milan keeper Dida when, if he had clipped a pass across goal, Ibrahimovic and Sonck could have scored easily.
Before half-time Lobont and Dida exchanged thrilling saves, from Inzaghi and Ibrahimovic respectively, but with Milan increasingly running the Dutch side off their feet, and Martin Laursen doing a steady job having replaced Alessandro Costacurta, the champions upped the tempo still further after the break and went ahead with 25 minutes left.
Inzaghi foraged for the ball and turned Maxwell. Feeding Andriy Shevchenko, he continued his run and as a vicious shot from his strike partner rebounded back from Lobont's save, Inzaghi caused the stadium to erupt in relief as he steered the ball into the net.
Moments before the goal Steven Pienaar's deft little flick, from only five metres out, had been brilliantly saved by Dida but it was against the tide of the game. Shevchenko nearly added another with a scintillating run past Petri Pasanen and a firm shot which Lobont saved. Kaka then drifted into the box and hit the post before Lobont gratefully grabbed the ball.
The red card for Gattuso followed but the match had one last dramatic twist. Trabelsi, Ajax's man of the match, burst in from the right, Ibrahimovic missed in front of goal but the ball rebounded to Van der Vaart only five metres out. The talented Dutchman shot firmly, but Dida produced an outstanding save to seal the three points.