Soccer-Kessie fires Milan back into Champions League after long absence

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(Reuters) -AC Milan secured a long-awaited return to the Champions League on Sunday as two Franck Kessie penalties earned a 2-0 win over Atalanta to seal a second-place finish on the final day of the Serie A season.

The victory saw Milan climb one point above the Bergamo club in the standings to 79 points behind champions Inter Milan.

Milan led the Serie A standings until mid-February, but a subsequent dip in form left them at risk of falling out of the top-four on the final day if they failed to win.

“We reached the Champions League because we deserved to, as well as deserving second place in the standings,” Milan coach Stefano Pioli told Sky Italia.

Kessie showed great composure to score from the spot shortly before the break and in second-half stoppage time, when Atalanta midfielder Marten de Roon was sent off.

The victory means the seven-time European champions will play Champions League football for the first time since 2013-14 next season.

Milan squandered a chance to seal a top-four finish when they drew 0-0 with Cagliari last weekend, but faced up to a tough challenge against an Atalanta side unbeaten in its last three meetings against the Rossoneri.

“We have spent the whole season towards the top of the table, but unfortunately we threw away a ‘match point’ last weekend," Pioli said.

"I am really happy and I have to thank the club because they have made us work in a spectacular way.”

There were few clear chances in a cagey first half until Theo Hernandez was felled in the box and Kessie stepped up to slot the resulting penalty into the bottom corner.

Atalanta’s top-four spot was already secured before kickoff but Gian Piero Gasperini’s side knew that a win would seal a club record second-place finish and help them finish the season on a high after the disappointment of Wednesday’s Coppa Italia final defeat to Juventus.

The hosts went close to an equaliser when Duvan Zapata flashed a shot wide, and Milan were inches away from doubling their lead when Rafael Leao’s effort hit the post.

Pioli’s side sealed the three points in stoppage time when another penalty was awarded for handball, and De Roon’s reaction earned him a red card before Kessie again made no mistake from 12 yards.

It was Milan’s 16th away win of the season, an all-time record in Serie A and a feat no team has bettered in Europe’s top-five leagues, with only Real Madrid in 2011-12 and Manchester City in 2017-18 matching it.

(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Ken Ferris and Toby Davis)