Mario Balotelli and Giampaolo Pazzini struck late on to shatter Cagliari's brave resistance, after Marco Sau looked to have given the Sardinians three precious points. For long periods, Milan's wastefulness in front of goal looked to have cost them dear, but their late rally results in back-to-back Serie A victories for the first time this season. Clarence Seedorf remains unbeaten in the league, while Cagliari hover four points above the drop zone.
Victor Ibarbo was suspended for the home side after his dismissal for violent conduct against Atalanta last weekend. Fellow frontman Nene was injured, but Mauricio Pinilla had a ban halved on appeal and was able to lead the Sardinian line alongside Sau.
It was a windy afternoon at the Sant'Elia stadium. Marco Amelia was making his first start of the season between the Milan sticks. His first touch was a poor clearance which put Daniele Bonera under pressure. The ball fell to Andrea Cossu, but the Cagliari man took a bad touch and the ball overran into a grateful Amelia's gloves.
Kaka and Balotelli provided Robinho with a great chance seven minutes in. The Brazilian created space for himself and lifted a shot wide when he really should have found the target. Vlada Avramov hesitated to come for a cross, Balotelli stuck out a leg, but the goalkeeper did enough to deflect the ball wide with his body.
Milan failed to close down a corner, giving Nicola Murru a free shot. The full back fluffed his chance and ballooned over from just inside the box.
Balotelli stung Avramov's palms with a shot on the turn, while Keisuke Honda lost his composure in front of goal and was denied by Avramov. Cossu's inviting cross was just too deep for a stretching Daniele Dessena to meet at the far post and Albin Ekdal saw a snapshot go wide after an initial effort ricocheted into his path.
Milan gifted Cagliari the lead on 28 minutes thanks to a howler from Amelia. Another poor kick from the goalkeeper went straight to Pinilla. The forward chipped the ball into Sau, who turned both Bonera and Amelia before slotting into the net. It was the frontman's fifth goal of the season.
Riccardo Montolivo sent a disappointing effort over from a Robinho free kick, before Avramov pulled off a smart reflex save to keep out Honda's header from six yards. Just before the break, Bonera made a hash out of another clearance in the box, but Sau couldn't capitalise and claim his brace.
The visitors had the wind behind them for the second half, but were immediately put onto the backfoot. Moments after the restart, Montolivo sent a half volley just wide from the edge of the box. Balotelli blazed an effort on the turn into Row Z after Kaka's ball into the box missed Robinho and found the Italian at point blank range.
Milan kept coming forward. On the hour, Honda played a return pass with Robinho and got underneath his shot, resulting in the ball going over. Seedorf brought on Pazzini to freshen up his attack. Honda pounced on a Luca Rossettini error in the box and ran towards goal. Francesco Pisano got a block in to let his teammate off the hook. Mattia De Sciglio then Balotelli forgot to put power in their shots, leading to weak efforts easily being gathered by Avramov.
Cagliari almost punished Milan's lack of cutting edge with a second goal on 73 minutes. A rare Sardinian attack saw substitute Matias Cabrera find Pinilla out wide. The forward flashed a shot at goal which agonisingly finished the wrong side of the post.
In the closing minutes, Balotelli's 30 yard free kick was off target, while Kaka's header towards goal was cleared by the boot of Davide Astori. Honda failed to find the goal straight from the corner flag and Avramov flew out of his goal to punch clear a De Sciglio cross.
Cabrera was booked for deliberate handball a couple of yards outside the box and Balotelli punished the hosts, whipping the free kick over the wall and into the net. It was the third league game in a row that Super Mario has found the net, but a booking during his goal celebration rules him out of next weekend's home game against Torino.
Milan remarkably found the winner a minute from time. Honda's corner was turned in by Pazzini. The substitute stuck out a boot to get to the ball ahead of Daniele Conti and guide it inside the post.
Cagliari: Avramov; Pisano, Rossettini, Astori, Murru; Dessena, Conti, Ekdal; (Eriksson 76) Cossu; (Ibraimi 90) Sau, (Cabrera 69) Pinilla
AC Milan: Amelia; De Sciglio, Rami, Bonera, Emanuelson; (Abate 77) De Jong, (Muntari 69) Montolivo; Honda, Kaka, Robinho; (Pazzini 60) Balotelli
Goals: Sau 28 (C) Balotelli 87 (M) Pazzini 89 (M)