Mario Balotelli's 43rd minute penalty proved to be decisive as AC Milan edged out Lega Pro side Alessandria 1-0 in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin -- some 90 kilometers away from Alessandria's regular home, the Stadio Giuseppe Moccagatta.
Milan dominated the first half but were very wasteful in possession, particularly Mario Balotelli who -- in his first start since returning from injury -- squandered a number of chances to take the lead. Mattia De Sciglio found Balotelli in the penalty box after making a run on the right, only for the striker to misjudge his shot. The Italian striker wasted another goal-scoring opportunity with a wayward long-range effort that failed to trouble Alessandria's goalkeeper Gianmarco Vannucchi.
Milan missed a golden opportunity to take the lead after José Mauri -- in his first start for the Rossoneri since joining last summer -- laid the ball for Andrea Poli only for him to be denied by a brilliant Vannucchi save at close range. Milan squandered another chance moments later when Balotelli attempted a lob that went well wide of the right post.
Fortunately for Milan, Balotelli atoned for his misses before the half-time break. In one of his signature charges into the 6-yard box, Luca Antonelli was brought down by Alessandria's captain Santiago Morero. Balotelli -- who rarely ever misses from the spot -- gave Milan a 1-0 lead after he converted his penalty into the lower left corner while Vannucchi went in the opposite direction.
Milan had a previous penalty appeal waved off earlier in the half when Luiz Adriano -- returning to the Milan starting XI after his bizarre transfer saga -- claimed to have been fouled in the area during a rare touch on ball. His largely anonymous first half performance may have left Milan fans wondering why he is still at the club.
After succumbing to Milan's domination in the first half, Alessandria -- backed by their travelling home fans -- came out the stronger side in the second 45 minutes. Milan started to look unsettled as Alessandria piled on the pressure. In an effort to take something away from the tie, coach Gregucci made tactical changes that almost paid off. Riccardo Bocalon -- match winner against Spezia in the Coppa Italia quarter final -- made an immediate impact after coming on as a substitute with a shot that came close to beating Christian Abbiati on his left post.
As Alessandria searched for an all-important equaliser, Milan looked for a second decisive goal with Sinisa Mihajlovic replacing goalscorer Balotelli with M'baye Niang in the 71st minute. Poli thought he had killed off the first leg when his long range effort squeezed into the back of the net. His celebration was short-lived as referee Massimiliano Irrati ruled that Niang was in an offside position and had interfered with play. The referee's decision could be questioned as Niang looked to have completely moved out of the way and was not in Vannucchi's line of sight when Poli delivered his shot.
Vannucchi kept Alessandria's hopes alive in the tie after denying Niang twice in the last ten minutes of the game. The Alessandria goalkeeper had to come out of his box to deny Niang an almost certain clear run on goal. Moments later, Vannucchi made another brilliant interception after Antonelli's through ball found Niang on a diagonal run. The Frenchman's shot was parried by Vannucchi with a faint touch onto the post.
The Rossoneri hung on for a slender 1-0 advantage which they will take to the San Siro when the two sides meet again for the second leg on 1 March.
U.S. Alessandria Calcio
Starting XI: Gianmarco Vannucchi; Cristian Sosa, Santiago Morero, Alex Sirri, Roberto Sabato; Gianluca Nicco, Massimo Loviso (Adriano Mezavilla, 60'), Simone Branca; Manuel Marras (Filippo Boniperti, 82'), Michele Marconi (Riccardo Bocalon, 60'), Manuel Fischnaller
Starting XI: Christian Abbiati; Mattia De Sciglio, Cristian Zapata, Alessio Romagnoli, Luca Antonelli; Keisuke Honda, Andrea Poli, José Mauri (Riccardo Montolivo, 63'), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Juraj Kucka, 84'); Mario Balotelli (M'baye Niang, 71'), Luiz Adriano
Halftime Score: 0-1
Final Score: 0-1
Goal Scorers: Mario Balotelli (p) 43'