Mario Balotelli scored a free-kick as AC Milan beat Udinese 3-2 on Tuesday night, but only after surviving a second half comeback from the home side in a five-goal thriller.
The Italy striker opened the scoring after just five minutes as the visitors made a superb start at the Stadio Communale Friuli, before Giacomo Bonaventura doubled their lead in the 10th minute.
Cristian Zapata’s goal in the closing minutes of the first half seemed to have decided the match, but Udinese came roaring into the game after the interval.
Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu made it 3-1 shortly after the break and then substitute Duvan Zapata got another on the hour mark to set up a tense finale.
But there was no comeback from the struggling hosts, despite plenty of late pressure, and their hopes were finally ended in injury-time when Bruno Fernandes was sent off for a second yellow card.
Victory sent Milan fourth in the table for at least a day, while Udinese have now lost four in a row and look set for a battle against relegation.
Milan started the game superbly and needed only five minutes to take the lead. Balotelli stepped up to take a free-kick in a dangerous position after he was brought down himself and the Liverpool loanee justified Sinisa Mihajlovic’s decision to include him in the starting XI with a perfect effort into the top corner.
The visitors did not let up after their early opener and made it two after just 10 minutes. Riccardo Montolivo spotted Bonaventura’s clever run behind the Udinese defence and the latter chested down the midfielder’s superb pass before slotting home from inside the area.
Milan continued to look dangerous and they should have piled even more misery on Udinese in the 26th minute. Keisuke Honda set up Carlos Bacca with an intelligent pass, yet the Colombia international hesitated too long and his shot was eventually blocked by Manuel Iturra.
The pair combined again 10 minutes before half-time when Honda this time tried his luck from 12 yards after being set up by Bacca, but once again Iturra did just enough to deflect the Japan playmaker’s attempt wide with a last-ditch tackle.
There was no denying Milan in the closing seconds of the first half, though. Bonaventura sent his corner to the back post and Cristian Zapata beat his marker to the ball before diagonally heading home for his side’s third.
Udinese refused to give up, however, and they pulled one back shortly after the interval. Antonio Di Natale’s first touch let him down, but the ball fell kindly to Agyemang-Badu, who fired home to reduce the deficit.
The Ghanaian’s goal seemed to spur Stefano Colantuono’s men on, and they soon got a second shortly before the hour mark when Cyril Thereau set up Duvan Zapata and the substitute had no trouble tapping in from just a few yards out.
Thereau nearly completed Udinese’s comeback after a low cross from Di Natale, but Diego Lopez rushed off his line to collect the ball before the Frenchman could get to it
To rub even more salt into Udinese’s wounds, the home side were reduced to 10 men in stoppage time when Fernandes received his second yellow card, as Milan held on.