Zlatan Ibrahimovic starred on his comeback from injury as he inspired AC Milan to a 2-0 victory over Viktoria Plzen to keep them on Barcleona's heels in UEFA Champions League Group H. The big Swede came straight back into the team following two weeks out with a groin strain and scored a penalty before setting up Antonio Cassano for the decisive second.
Milan coach Massimilano Allegri praised Ibrahimovic and admitted the group should come down to the crunch clash at the San Siro between Milan and Barcelona in November.
"Ibra had a good comeback, he played well and helped the team. He gives us a physical presence; he's technical, has important qualities and he's a point of reference," said Allegri. "I'm happy with how he played, given he hadn't played for a while.
"Winning is never easy. Tonight we did it our way. They were organised and did well on the counter-attack, attacking with five men. Over time I think it will come down to the Barça match, but we'll see and take it one game at a time."
A thrilling opening 45 minutes remained goalless but could have produced a rugby score. Vaclav Pilar sent a cross over from the left for Marek Bakos to meet with a header, but Christian Abbiati made a flying one-handed save.
Ibrahimovic then got down the right and picked out Cassano right in front of goal, but Marek Cech saved his low shot with his legs. Again the Swede almost put Cassano through only for David Limbersky to slide in to save the day. Moments later, Cech plunged to his right to beat away Cassano's curler from 20 yards.
Ignazio Abate crossed for Mark van Bommel, however his stooping header went high before up the other end Pavel Horvath's shot was deflected over. Cassano had another low shot saved by Cech who then made an amazing stop to deny Ibrahimovic on 32 minutes when the big Swede was picked out, alone and unmarked 10 yards out, by another good cross from Abate. Ibrahimovic was also guilty of dallying with a chance before Cech saved his left-foot effort.
Viktoria opened up Milan like a tin on 39 minutes after a good move involving Bakos and Daniel Kolar, but Horvath was too precise in his finish and passed his shot wide of the upright. Clarence Seedorf sent a cross-cum-shot flashing along the six-yard box, but no-one followed it in. It was a tailor-made opportunity for Filippo Inzaghi, watching on frustrated in the stands as he hasn't even been included in Milan's 25-man Champions League squad.
Milan took the lead in contentious fashion when German referee Florian Meyer awarded a penalty against Marian Cisovsky when a flick from Ibrahimovic hit his arm from point-blank range. Ibrahimovic made no mistake from the spot on 53 minutes. Milan almost got a second on a rapier counter, but after good work from Seedorf and Ibrahimovic, Cassano fired over.
Plzen weren't out of it though and Abbiati had to get down well to save from Horvath. The killer second on 66 minutes was pure class. Ibrahimovic held off his marker in taking down a long ball, teased the defence and then slipped in Cassano to dink the ball over Cech.