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Super Mario saves Seedorf AC debut

MARIO-CHIEVOGENMILAN, January 20- A late Mario Balotelli spot-kick saved new AC Milan coach Clarence Seedorf’s blushes in a 1-0 win over Verona Sunday, which handed the struggling Serie A giants only their sixth victory of the campaign.

Seedorf has been heralded as Milan’s potential saviour since former coach Massimiliano Allegri was sacked after a 4-3 defeat to Sassuolo last week left the Rossoneri 30 points behind leaders Juventus.

“We dedicate this win to the new coach,” said Italy striker Balotelli. “Because the first game in charge of a team is always difficult.”

For his first game in charge of the side for whom he made 300 appearances in 10 golden years (2002-2012), Seedorf sent out an ultra-offensive 4-2-3-1 formation with Robinho, Kaka and Japan’s Keisuke Honda playing behind Balotelli.

But despite a lightning start against Andrea Mandorlini’s high-flying visitors, Seedorf grew increasingly frustrated on the touchline as the hosts failed to convert a series of chances.

Brazilian Robinho hit the woodwork in the second half but Milan had to rely on Balotelli’s 82nd minute spot-kick after Kaka was fouled in the area to claim a welcome three points.

In the opening minutes Verona goalkeeper Rafael had to scramble to tip away a deflected cross while under pressure from Balotelli as Milan pressed. A minute later Kaka flashed a header wide.

Verona were struggling to make any kind of impact and Balotelli was given time to shoot from distance on 20 minutes but his effort sailed a metre over.

Milan’s intensity dipped towards the end of the half but when Balotelli was tripped just outside the area he tested Rafael with a dipping freekick that rebounded and was bundled to safety.

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A promising strike from captain Riccardo Montolivo sailed just wide of the upright in the closing stages of the half.

But after the restart Milan were sluggish, Seedorf opting to replace Honda with Valter Birsa on the right.

Verona substitute Raphael Martinho, who replaced striker Daniele Cacia, gave the hosts a scare when he burst into the box to force Christian Abbiati into action with a shot from a tight angle.

At the other end Birsa delivered for Robinho and while the Brazilian’s shot from inside the area sent Rafael the wrong way, it came back off the keeper’s far post.

With 12 minutes remaining Seedorf replaced Robinho with Andrea Petagna, but it was Kaka who helped make the difference when he tumbled in the area under a challenge from Alejandro Gonzalez.

The referee pointed to the spot and Balotelli stepped up to send Rafael the wrong way.

Milan reclaimed 11th place, having dropped to 12th due to results elsewhere, although they are still 18 points adrift of Napoli, who occupy the third and last Champions League qualifying spot.

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