Two second-half goals from Kaká helped AC Milan squeeze into the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds with a hard-earned victory against FC Schalke 04 that secured first place in Group E.
The Italian side began the night in top spot, and needing a point - though not a high-scoring draw - to progress, looked on course for the last 16 when Andrea Pirlo curled in a spectacular free-kick shortly before half-time. Christian Poulsen levelled almost immediately, however, but a quick double from Kaká early in the second period put the home team in control, before Lincoln revived Schalke's hopes in the 66th minute and forced Milan to hang on.
Experience wins out
With qualification on the line, the stakes could not have been higher. Fortunately, both coaches could breathe easier knowing key defenders had passed late fitness tests as Milan's Paolo Maldini and Schalke's Marcelo Bordon were available to reinforce their back lines. Milan's 37-year-old captain joined Alessandro Nesta in central defence while Jaap Stam returned from suspension to fill the right-back slot. In attack, experience won over youth, as 32-year-old Filippo Inzaghi started alongside Andriy Shevchenko, in a strike force boasting an intimidating 101 European goals.
The early play was concentrated in the middle third of the pitch as possession was won and lost at breakneck speed until Schalke right-back Rafinha pushed forward to create the first chance of the evening for Kevin Kuranyi, but the German international's half-volley blazed high over Dida's goal. Intent on reaching the knockout phase for the first time, Schalke stepped up a gear as midfielder Hamit Altıntop robbed Maldini and charged down the right before unleashing a low drive that sailed wide of the far post. In racing back to challenge Altıntop, Maldini was injured and limped off to be replaced by Dario Šimić.
However, the odds immediately shifted back in the hosts' favour when Kaká was fouled outside the area, giving Pirlo a free-kick opportunity. The Italian international did not disappoint with a masterful right-footed effort that flew into the top corner and left Frank Rost rooted to the spot. No matter. Schalke drew level two minutes later as Lincoln curled in a set-piece of his own for midfielder Poulsen to head past Dida.
The momentum switched back to Milan after the break, though, thanks mainly to the selfless work of Shevchenko. The 2004 European Footballer of the Year took the ball just inside the Schalke half and absorbed the attention of two defenders before laying off for Kaká on the edge of the box. The Brazilian did well to shake off his marker before thumping a shot past Rost. That effort was the cue for Milan to increase the pressure. Their third goal duly arrived when Kaká collected possession after Shevchenko had been unable to connect with Inzaghi's pass from the right, and poked in to secure a seemingly unassailable advantage.
Yet Schalke refused to go down quietly. Lincoln seized on a deflected strike to beat Dida in the 66th minute and resurrect German ambitions. Another goal would not come for the visitors, however, who had to settle for third position and a place in the UEFA Cup Round of 32.