Sir Alex Ferguson once claimed that Filippo Inzaghi was born offside. He was still there last night but Howard Webb, the English referee already despised by the Spanish after the World Cup final, did not see it. And so it was that Inzaghi seemed to have inflicted José Mourinho's first defeat as the Real Madrid manager, coming from the bench to score twice.
But with Milan's fans celebrating a victory that had seemed so improbable for so long, Pedro León's shot in added time somehow slipped past Christian Abiatti's legs to make it 2-2 and send Mourinho performing a now familiar celebration on the touchline.
"It was a great experience for my team to play at the San Siro but my team still has to learn how to play Champions League football," Mourinho said. "In the second half we needed to finish the game off, but instead we nearly lost.
"It is therefore a big lesson for us," he said. "It was a very satisfying goal, it was excellent for Pedro León to score his first Champions League goal and really good for us as we qualified."
For Milan, the blow was palliated by Ajax's defeat, leaving in second, one point ahead of the Dutch side. For Madrid, it was justice – and clinched qualification with two games remaining. For Inzaghi, a pity. Love him or loath him, much as he never appears a virtuoso, he is devastatingly effective. His second here gave him 70 European goals, taking him above Gerd Müller and Raúl as the continent's top scorer.
Inzaghi struck in the 78th minute. Lurking behind Madrid's defence, and offside, he slotted underneath the bunny-hopping Iker Casillas. The 37-year-old had only been on 20 minutes and already it was his second, changing the game entirely. Madrid had seemed to be cruising. Instead, a historic first win in 16 San Siro visits verged on a 14th defeat until the very last seconds.
When Madrid took the lead just before half-time, the surprise was that it had taken so long. Ronaldinho, a shadow of the player he once was, lost out to Sergio Ramos. The full-back set Madrid on a quick, direct raid. Angel Di María weaved inside and slotted a clever ball to Gonzalo Higuaín, who finished low. Higuaín has spent two years undermining the arguments against him. One of the last fell here; Higuaín, his detractors said, did not score in the big arenas.
Yet if this was the biggest of arenas and, theoretically, the biggest of opponents, the reality looked rather different. This is a poor Milan team, lacking presence, slow at the back and isolated up front. Or it was until Inzaghi appeared. When they advanced, Madrid defence was largely successful, although some threat remained: Pato scored but was ruled offside. The same did not happen later for Inzaghi.
At the other end, Madrid's first could have been their third, Di María, Higuaín and Pepe all coming close, Andrea Pirlo twice clearing off the line. At the break, they had racked up 14 shots and within a minute of the restart it was 15. In the intensity and pressure, Mourinho's hand certainly showed.
But Mourinho was right in his fears too. Forget Robinho, Pato, Ronaldinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he had insisted that Inzaghi concerned him most. It sounded like a bluff and the Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri ignored him – until the 60th minute. Eight minutes later, Inzaghi had headed in the equaliser from a familiar position: two yards out following a goalkeeping error. The momentum changed and Inzaghi got another from an even more familiar position – offside. In the end, though, Pedro León denied him the chance to claim a match winner yet again.
"When Inzaghi came on everyone in the San Siro knew that he was worth putting on," Allegri said. "We played better with him and overcame a difficult period against one the of the best teams in the world."