It was briefly—very briefly—in doubt but ultimately emphatic, as Atletico Madrid joined Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the Champions League with a 4-1 thrashing of AC Milan on Tuesday evening.
Diego Costa opened the scoring, then rounded it off in the 5-1 aggregate victory, the naturalised Spain international proving to be much of the difference between the two sides as goals from Arda Turan and Raul Garcia sparked a celebratory atmosphere at the Vicente Calderon.
Milan, 1-0 down from the first leg, briefly gained hope of an unlikely reversal when Kaka’s far-post header cancelled out Costa’s third-minute opener—but they were only within one goal of progression for a matter of minute, before Arda’s deflected strike shortly before half-time gave Los Colchoneros an additional cushion.
It was a bitter pill for Clarence Seedorf’s side to take—the flick off Adil Rami took Arda’s volley well out of Abbiati’s reach—but ultimately perhaps only put them out of their misery sooner, as the gulf in class between the two sides was exposed the longer the contest went on.
"The two games against AC Milan were very good, maybe at the end of the first half [today] it was a bit difficult," Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois told Sky Sports. "But I think overall we played a very good game."
With a slender advantage going into the home leg, Diego Simeone had suggested his side would go out to deprive Mario Balotelli of service, looking to preserve their lead rather than push forward and try to build on it.
If that was the case, then the start certainly did not go according to plan—but in a way Simeone would not have minded for one moment. After scoring the only goal of the first leg, it was Costa who again made the difference, the striker showing great athleticism to get on the end of Koke’s pinpoint cross and prod it home.
There had been great work, too, from Gabi in the build-up, as the midfielder won the ball in a dangerous area before feeding Koke for the killer delivery.
From that point on, Simeone’s stated game plan began to play out more obviously as Atletico dropped deeper and invited a little bit of pressure from the Italians. It was a strategy that did not really look like backfiring until it did—and in an unpredictable way.
It was Kaka—with a header!—who got Milan on terms on the night, the ex-Real Madrid playmaker ghosting in around the back to meet Andrea Poli’s curling cross and slip his header past Thibaut Courtois at the far post.
Seedorf’s men were suddenly only a goal from the last eight and seemed emboldened by that, as Kaka had another headed chance, this time from an Adel Taarabt strike, to score again.
The Brazilian failed to convert, however, and his side were punished moments later. It was a goal of both skill and good fortune—a deep ball being expertly headed down by Raul Garcia for Arda, who chested down and immediately unleashed a shot at goal.
The strike might have beaten Abbiati anyway, but the deflection off Rami sealed the deal.
Coming just before half-time, the strike seemed to deflate Milan, and although Seedorf changed things around by withdrawing Taarabt for Robinho, it proved to be the killer blow as the second half went on.
Diego Costa and Gabi both went close within moments of the restart, but it took until the 70th minute for the home side to wrap things up. It was the impressive Raul Garcia who got the goal, planting his header firmly beyond Abbiati after another fine delivery from Gabi.
With progression sealed, Costa then added to his ongoing case to be the most dangerous forward with another lethal finish in the closing moments. He left his defender for dead before hitting the target off the inside of the far post, wrapping up a 4-1 win on the night and 5-1 triumph on aggregate.
"He is perfect," Courtois added, speaking of Costa. "From one or two chances he scores and that is really important for us. He scored two goals, so we can be very happy."
With their main striker in this sort of form, Atletico will be no pushovers for any side they may meet in the next round.
AC Milan, meanwhile, can now focus on domestic matters—and the ongoing transition to a new generation that Seedorf is trying to oversee.
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AC Milan return to Serie A action at home to Parma on Sunday. Atletico also have a home game, against Espanyol.
The draw for the quarter-finals is due to take place in Nyon on Friday, March 21.