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Diego Costa lifts Atletico past Milan

Champions League: Diego Costa breaks deadlock against AC Milan
Champions League: Diego Costa breaks deadlock against AC Milan
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Dermot Corrigan

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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MADRID

Atletico Madrid took a huge step towards the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals with a physically tough and tactically clever 1-0 win at AC Milan in Wednesday’s last 16 first leg at San Siro.

Milan had the better for the first half -- with its dangermen Mario Balotelli and Kaka coming close to breaking the deadlock. But Atletico showed character to hang in the game when it was not going their way, and then turned the screw after the break. And its talisman Diego Costa headed a late winner which the visitors ultimately deserved on the balance of play.

Atletico started as if eager to show it was not intimidated by the historic surroundings, with Costa going on a typical rampaging run forward inside the opening seconds. But they were soon pushed back as Milan began to move the ball around nicely and got the almost 80,000 home crowd on its side.

Kaka came close first with a left-foot curler which was heading for the top corner until it flicked off the forehead of Atletico defender Diego Godin and then the crossbar. Visiting goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois soon showed his lightning reflexes with a snap-save from Andrea Poli’s close-range header. Next came Adel Taarabt’s sliderule pass, Balotelli’s backheel and Kaka's curler went over Courtois but landed on roof of the net.

Taarabt, only a few weeks ago a reserve at Barclays Premier League strugglers Fulham, was making his first ever Champions League debut. He looked at home on this stage. Milan’s knack for picking up talented but wayward players at other clubs -- Kaka at Real Madrid, Balotelli and Nigel de Jong at Manchester City, Adil Rami at Valencia -- was being highlighted again. These guys are perhaps not suited to long Serie A slog, but can come to life on big European nights like this.

Atletico are usually a more stable outfit -- a well drilled team who have been grinding out results in La Liga all season and know how to dig in when things not going their way. They also have a tough side -- and reserve left back Emiliano Insua hacked down young Milan right back Matteo De Sciglio, leading to a booking for Insua and De Sciglio having to be replaced by sub Ignazio Abate.

Balotelli was also complaining of tough treatment after he was caught in the face by a stray hand by visiting centerback Joao Miranda, and then tripped by Atletico holding midfielder Mario Suarez. Dutch midfielder de Jong is no stranger to the rough-stuff, and he was warned for taking out Atletico creator Arda Turan. Amid the battles there were few clear chances and halftime came with the game still goalless.

Atletico again came out of the dressing room eager to do more, with young Spain international midfielder Koke helping hold the ball in midfield. Costa had the first chance of second period but sent his spectacular volley too high.

But Milan bit by bit edged back into it, with Kaka firing across goal and wide. Costa -- who was now everywhere -- was then booked for hauling down Balotelli way back close to his own goal. SuperMario’s compass was awry though -- with a third similar free of the night thumped straight into the Atletico wall.

Visiting coach Diego Simeone moved first on the sideline. But he decided against introducing the more attack-minded David Villa or Diego Ribas, opting instead for the hardworking Cristian Rodriguez into midfield for Turan. This suggested the Argentine was happy with the draw, or perhaps that he could see his side were getting on top in the key central area.

The next change was more obviously telling. Milan manager Seedorf was forced to remove Balotelli who’d hurt a shoulder, and who walked slowly from the pitch as if he too did not see the need to hurry and get a replacement on to try to force a winner. With him went Milan’s impetus and Atletico -- with another attacker now on in Adrian Lopez -- bossed the final stages. The visitors forced corner after corner and one finally told.

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Abate could not clear at the near post and Costa twisted his neck muscles to powerfully head the ball to the net for his fifth goal in four Champions League appearances this season. The Brazilian-Spaniard had won his personal duel with Balotelli, and Atletico had one foot in a first Champions League quarter-final appearance since 1997.

Atletico had shown real grit and character -- with midfielders Gabi and Koke, and defender Godin all stand-out performers. The Milan dangermen who flickered in the first half -- Kaka and Taarabt -- did not get a kick after the break.

This was billed as the history of the seven time champions against the hunger of the new kids on the European block. Hunger beat history on Wednesday night -- and Atletico are now firm favorites to progress after the second leg at its Estadio Vicente Calderon on March 11.

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