Mario Balotelli marked his first start since September with a goal as AC Milan secured a 1-0 win over Alessandria in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final.
The Liverpool loanee, recently returned from a groin injury, opened the scoring from the spot to help Sinisa Mihajlovic’s side take charge of the tie in Turin.
Milan started with Balotelli alongside Luiz Adriano, who seemingly saw a move to China fall through this week, but chances were few and far between for either side in a scrappy contest.
Riccardo Bocalon came close for Alessandria as they tried to turn up the pressure, but they had the assistant referee to thank when Andrea Poli’s goal was ruled out for a questionable offside.
Milan held on for the victory, meaning third-tier Alessandria – who claimed some notable scalps en route to the last four, including Palermo, Genoa and Roma’s conquerors Spezia – must overturn a deficit if they are to reach the final.
The Stadio Olimpico was in fine voice in the opening stages as Alessandria made life difficult for a Milan side looking to reach their first final since their 2003 triumph.
Balotelli had earlier failed to connect with the ball when unmarked in the area and he wasted a glorious chance when he lofted the ball high and wide after being played clean through by Keisuke Honda’s fine pass.
But Balotelli made amends just three minutes before half-time, firing low to the goalkeeper’s right rom the penalty spot after Santiago Morero tripped Luca Antonelli as he charged into the box.
The former Inter man almost turned provider for a Milan second just four minutes into the second half as he teed up Honda, but the Japan international’s shot from just 10 yards out clipped a defender on its way over.
Alessandria grew into proceedings and Christian Abbiati was left a little anxious as Bocalon bobbled a shot from 20 yards narrowly wide of the Milan goal, as the Lega Pro club’s fans began to sense a way back into the tie.
Bocalon struck a cleaner second effort five minutes later only to see the ball whistle past Abbiati’s near post as pressure mounted on the five-time winners – though Alessandria were spared a killer second goal by virtue of the offside flag.
Poli scuffed a shot from the edge of the area and it bobbled its way into the bottom corner despite Vannucchi’s best efforts, but substitute M’Baye Niang was adjudged to have interfered with play as he dodged the path of the ball whilst in an offside position.
Niang was inches from a second goal, rattling the base of the post from the left of the area after racing in behind the defence, but Milan had to settle for a 1-0 win to put them in command of the tie heading into the return leg at San Siro on March 1.
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