Veteran forward Filippo Inzaghi stole the show from David Beckham with a hat-trick as AC Milan returned to winning ways in a 3-0 success over Atalanta at the San Siro. The script seemed to have been written for Beckham to score the winner on the same day that it was announced he would stay at Milan until the end of the season, but instead it was his 35-year-old team-mate whose treble proved decisive.
Perhaps more important for Milan, who have been in disarray on the pitch recently, going out of the UEFA Cup ten days ago and losing at Sampdoria in the league last weekend, is that the victory gave them a five-point gap over fourth-placed Fiorentina, who lost 2-0 at home to Palermo. Only the top three in Serie A will go straight into next season's UEFA Champions League group stages, with the fourth place finisher having to negotiate two qualifying rounds.
With his contract uncertainty behind him, Beckham seemed to have a new lease of life and he was even given a free role behind forwards Inzaghi and Pato by Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti. The former England captain initially thrived in that position, dictating the play with his eclectic array of passing. One raking 50-yard, crossfield ball sent Pato scampering away towards goal, while a clever flick with the outside of his boot to find Mathieu Flamini drew gasps and a round of applause from the stands.
His crosses were also causing havoc and it was from one of those that Milan took a seventh-minute lead. Atalanta failed to clear a dangerous ball in from Beckham and Marek Jankulovski picked up the loose ball before firing it across the box for the unmarked Inzaghi to poke home. Andrea Pirlo also tried to muscle in on the Beckham show and planted a 30-yard free-kick onto the roof of the net.
Up the other end, the visitors were at times dangerous and Tiberio Guarente forced Christian Abbiati into making a diving one-handed save on the half hour. Abbiati was soon called back into action to keep out a Gianvinto Plasmati header at his near post, as Atalanta caused problems for Milan's backline in the air.
After the break, a clever Beckham pass played in Pato, but Andrea Consigli rushed out to block his attempted dink finish from close range. The fragility of a single goal lead was brought home on 64 minutes, though, as Atalanta's Brazilian midfielder Ferreira Pinto flashed a shot just past the far post. So it was with as much with relief as joy that the crowd met Inzaghi's second on 71 minutes, as the goalmouth predator for once beat the offside trap to latch onto Pato's chip and take the ball around Consigli before slotting home.
And moment's later Inzaghi was once again in the right place at the right time to tap in Gianluca Zambrotta's pass from close range. After that, Ancelotti took both Inzaghi and Beckham off to give the fans the chance to show their appreciation for both players.
There was no change to the top three, as Inter Milan and Juventus both won on 7 March, 2-0 at Genoa and 1-0 at Torino respectively. Serie A top scorer Marco Di Vaio also scored a hat-trick as Bologna defeated Sampdoria 3-0.