The Rossoneri went to the Spanish capital keen to upset underdog status and throw their faint hopes of reaching the competition’s knock-outs a lifeline.
After losing their opening three Champions League games, including a 2-1 defeat to Atletico in the reverse fixture, Milan held Porto to a 1-1 draw last time out. With a single point from the inaugural four matches, Stefano Pioli’s side looked like a doomed outfit going into the penultimate round of Group B fixtures.
But in the most unexpected twists of fate, the seven-time Champions League winners could qualify for the knock-out stages, a virtue of their heroic performance in Madrid. The encounter at Wanda Metropolitano has not been an eye-pleasing affair by any stretch of the imagination, but Pioli’s men showed they are up there with Europe’s best sides.
Both teams refused to give much away in the first half, especially Los Rojiblancos, who failed to produce a single shot on target before half-time. Milan’s high press and combative approach hindered Atletico’s attempts to play from the back, often forcing Diego Simeone’s defenders to punch the ball away in despair.
Atletico barely had a sight of goal in the first 45 minutes, with the likes of Simon Kjaer and Alessio Romagnoli winning virtually every duel against Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann. On a very frustrating night for the hosts, Simeone’s players gave away possession cheaply, often failing to create anything meaningful up top.
Not that Milan had the best of games in terms of flair and prettiness, but the Italians enjoyed much of the ball possession and were far more dangerous going forward. The former Atletico Madrid left-back Theo Hernandez had the best chance of the first half, but his thunderous half-volley from just inside the box went inches wide of the near post.
After a goalless first-half, Milan continued to dominate possession and keep the reigning La Liga holders deep on their own half. However, the Rossoneri found the scoring opportunities hard to come by, with their first genuine attempt on goal coming midway through the second half.
Second-half substitute Tiemoue Bakayoko latched onto Junior Messias’ nice little lay-off, but Stefan Savic made a vital goalline clearance to avert the danger. Both players joined the fray in the 65th minute, replacing Sandro Tonali and Rade Kurinic, and went on to have a tremendous influence on the game.
Bakayoko came close to scoring again in the 80th minute. Another second-half addition Alessandro Florenzi swung the ball in from a free-kick, with the tall Frenchman powering a header a whisker wide of the left post.
After making a cameo appearance in Milan’s 4-3 loss at Fiorentina over the weekend, Messias came up huge in the dying moments of the match in Madrid. The enigmatic attacking midfielder, who has struggled with injuries this season, got off the mark in the Rossoneri shirt in one of the most thrilling European nights in the club’s recent history.
The 30-year-old started his team’s attack in the middle of the park but refused to stay put and instead galloped forward to meet Franck Kessie’s inch-perfect cross and put Milan in front in the 87th minute. Indeed, Messias has now gone from an unknown entity into an unexpected Champions League hero.
He used to deliver refrigerators and other household appliances whilst playing at the amateur level.
But it wasn’t over yet for Milan. Last season’s Serie A runners-up had to survive a late scare to walk away with all three points. This time around, Atleti’s second-half substitutes combined to create a golden opportunity for a late, albeit it’s fair to say an undeserved equalizer.
Angel Correa breezed past Theo on the right flank and into the box, but Matheus Cunha failed to convert the Argentine’s pinpoint low delivery, missing the target from point-blank range. The Brazilian’s poor finish could come back to haunt Los Rojiblancos on the final matchday.
There will be everything to play for in the last round of Group B fixtures a fortnight from now. Porto and Milan are now at five points, one clear of bottom-placed Atletico. It means the Rossoneri could advance to the Champions League knock-out stages if they beat Liverpool at the San Siro and Atletico hold Porto winless at the Dragao.