AC Milan's relentless pursuit of the Serie A title hit a stumbling block today as Catania held them to a 1-1 draw in Sicily.
Brazilian Robinho had given the champions a first-half lead, but Nicolas Spolli equalised in the second half. The draw took Milan five points clear of second-placed Juventus, who host Napoli tomorrow, with eight games left.
Catania are now just one point behind Roma in the final UEFA Europa League qualifying position. Playing in front of a rare packed house in Sicily, the hosts came flying out of the blocks and could have taken an early lead.
Sergio Almiron released Gonzalo Bergessio behind the Milan backline, but the Argentinian looked more keen to pass than shoot and when he eventually did the latter, it was a woeful effort that went high and wide.
Milan had soon weathered the storm and started to take control of proceedings. Antonio Nocerino played in Urby Emanuelson, but goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo stood up well to block. Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini chipped a ball over the top and Zlatan Ibrahimovic took it down on his chest, held off the attentions of a defender and flicked the ball towards goal, only for Carrizo to save with his foot.
Catania could not hold out forever, though, and the opening goal on 34 minutes was expertly crafted. Ambrosini played the ball towards the box to Robinho who knocked a first-time pass to Ibrahimovic.
The big Swede used great strength to hold off Nicola Legrottaglie and then even greater finesse to hook the ball back into Robinho's path for the Brazilian to finish with aplomb as four bewildered defenders looked on. Catania could have hit straight back, but Alenjandro Gomez's stunning strike, after he made space with a clever feint, crashed back off the bar.
The hosts started the second half as they did the first and had the ball in the net through Gomez only to see a linesman's flag rule it out. Catania kept coming, though, and Francesco Lodi scraped a drive just past the post.
They got the reward their attacking approach deserved on 57 minutes as Spolli tapped home from close range after Legrottaglie won a header in the box at a corner, although Milan paid for being too passive around their own six-yard box. And it could have been worse for the Rossoneri, who were struggling to hold on, as Luca Antonini had to throw himself at a Bergessio shot to prevent a goal.
But the visitors soon came back into it and Ibrahimovic dinked the ball over for Robinho who rounded Carrizo and shot towards goal. The shot evaded two back-tracking defenders, but Giovanni Marchese just got back in time to poke it off the line. Milan went looking for a late winner, but Carrizo twice denied Ibrahimovic.