By Pete Sanderson at the San Siro
AC Milan moved a significant step closer to Istanbul as they swept aside city rivals FC Internazionale Milano with a masterclass of counterattacking football in an absorbing UEFA Champions League quarter-final first-leg encounter.
Two pinpoint headers from Jaap Stam and Andriy Shevchenko either side of the interval left the blue half of the Italian city pondering what might have been had they converted one of the dozen opportunities the Nerazzurri fashioned out.
Milan reverted to a 4-4-2 formation to allow for the return of striker Andriy Shevchenko, who recovered from a fractured cheekbone just in time. The Ukrainian's inclusion in place of Rui Costa was the only change from the side which defeated Manchester United FC, Hernán Crespo keeping his place in attack.
Inter coach Roberto Mancini made three changes from the previous round, bringing back Giuseppe Favalli and Iván Córdoba after serving their respective bans and asking Obafemi Martins to fill the golden boots of Adriano, chief tormentor of FC Porto in the last 16.
Inter created the game's first clear-cut opportunity when Stam made an uncharacteristically rash challenge outside the area to concede a free-kick but was spared further embarrassment thanks to a spectacular diving save from Dida after Sinisa Mihajlovic's blistering free-kick threatened to nestle in the back of the net.
Inter were making all the running and, although chances were few and far between, Juan Sebastián Verón threatened to break the deadlock on 35 minutes. Gennaro Gattuso, a tenacious tackler whose role for the evening was to snap at the heels of any midfield runners, was booked for a deliberate handball - ruling him out of the return leg - and Verón's ferocious effort from the resulting free-kick stung Dida's hands.
Mancini urged his side forward from the sidelines sensing that Milan, who had thus far failed to threaten the Inter goal, were rattled by Inter's onslaught. Julio Cruz was the first to take his coach's advice and, but for another tremendous save from Dida, would have given his side a 44th-minute lead.
It was almost too good to be true for Inter and so it proved in the dying moments of the first half as Milan delivered the ultimate sucker punch. Andrea Pirlo sent a fizzing free-kick into the box from the right and Stam rose high above Córdoba to arrow a header beyond the despairing dive of Francesco Toldo.
Maintaining their desire after the break, it was hard not to admire Inter's enthusiasm but, with the ever-pragmatic Milan countering every punch the Nerazzurri could throw with their steely resistance, it seemed impossible to fathom what Inter needed to muster to breach Dida's rearguard.
Mancini responded by throwing on Christian Vieri, the man who helped them to their last win against Milan three years ago, to sharpen up their forward forays. Mihajlovic was soon back to his old tricks, sending another set-piece in Dida's direction but once again to no avail. Even Milan now were starting to come alive as an attacking force, with Kaká and Shevchenko both coming close as the game continued at a breathless pace.
As Milan stepped up the pace, the inevitable second goal duly arrived, and it was Shevchenko who did the damage 16 minutes from time. Andrea Pirlo swung a dangerous ball in towards the Ukrainian international and he effortlessly directed it into the bottom corner; the goal capping a memorable return.