Stuttering in Serie A, AC Milan dug deep to make it out of Group H as Mario Balotelli starred to ensure Massimiliano Allegri's side are the sole remaining Italian contenders.
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Having played FC Barcelona six times in their two previous campaigns, AC Milan were not surprised to be facing the Spanish title holders again in a group which included fellow former European champions Celtic FC and AFC Ajax. The Rossoneri lost only once, away to Barcelona, and after finishing second behind Gerardo Martino's side will at least be sure to avoid the Catalan giants in the round of 16, the stage at which they fell to the Blaugrana last term.
Story so far
Italy's most successful team in the competition, seven-time winners Milan have struggled in Serie A this season but saved their best football for Europe. Play-off victors against PSV Eindhoven, Massimiliano Allegri's men kicked off their campaign proper with a 2-0 home triumph over Celtic before consecutive 1-1 draws at Ajax and at home to Barça.
They made amends for a 3-1 matchday four reverse in Camp Nou by winning 3-0 at Celtic, with Kaká inspiring the visitors to Glasgow. That result meant Milan needed just a point at home against Ajax on the final day to progress, and they secured a hard-fought 0-0 draw despite playing 68 minutes with ten men following captain Riccardo Montolivo's sending-off.
With Barcelona clear favourites to win Group H, the race for second spot was wide open. Milan made a strong start by beating Celtic in their opening game, yet then appeared destined for a damaging loss at Ajax on matchday two when Stefano Denswil gave the Dutch side a 90th-minute lead. However, there was still time for Mario Balotelli to earn and convert a penalty in the fourth minute of added time. That always looked as if it might be a crucial point for Milan, and it turned out to be the margin which divided the two teams after matchday six.
: Mario Balotelli
Balotelli's 12 goals in 13 Serie A matches after joining from Manchester City FC last January was the main reason Milan made it to this season's tournament, and without the Italian international they almost certainly would not be in the knockout phase. The 23-year-old may only have scored twice, but the highlight of his campaign was arguably his tireless display in the decisive 0-0 draw with Ajax. With the Rossoneri reduced to ten men on 22 minutes, Balotelli galvanised Milan with one of his best all-around showings, unstinting in midfield and defence as well as providing a vital release with marvellous hold-up play. "He was great," said defender Daniele Bonera. "He understood the moment and sacrificed himself for the team."
Rising star: Mattia De Sciglio
"My season starts now," said Milan full-back De Sciglio ahead of that last fixture against Ajax, where the 21-year-old made a fine contribution as Milan held off the Eredivisie outfit. His sole other European appearance of an injury-plagued campaign came in the 3-0 success against PSV in the play-off second leg, another clean sheet for Milan. The Rossoneri may make signings during the January transfer window but, according to many, a fully fit De Sciglio will be the most important addition to Allegri's side.
Among the 16 teams qualified for the knockout phase, only FC Zenit and FC Schalke 04 scored fewer than Milan's eight goals in the group stage. The eighth, struck by Balotelli at Celtic Park, proved a special one – Milan's 600th in UEFA competition.
"Milan is my home, I needed to come back to rediscover the joy of playing football. The squad is crucial. With great players, you win games; with a great squad, you win trophies."
Kaká has shown glimpses of his old self since returning from Real Madrid CF.
Next challenge: Club Atlético de Madrid
(Home: 19 February, away: 11 March)
Having battled through a group containing one Liga frontrunner in Barcelona, Allegri's troops must tackle another in the last 16. One of Europe's form horses, Diego Simeone's Atlético cruised through Group G with the minimum of fuss. Matchday five's 1-1 draw at Zenit led to their only dropped points and the Spanish ensemble boast the joint-most miserly defence, having conceded just three. As the clubs meet for the first time in UEFA competition, Diego Costa could pose the biggest threat to the Italian outfit after scoring four goals in three group matches, also putting them away regularly on the domestic front.