Milan: Zlatan Ibrahimovic starred on his injury comeback as he inspired AC Milan to a 2-0 victory over Viktoria Plzen on Wednesday to keep them on Barcleona's heels in Champions League Group H.
The big Swede came straight back into the team following two weeks out with a groin strain and scored a penalty before setting up Antonio Cassano for the decisive second.
Milan coach Massimilano Allegri praised his star forward and admitted the group should come down to the crunch clash at San Siro between Milan and Barca on November 23.
"Ibra had a good comeback, he played well and helped the team. He gives us a physical presence; he's technical, has important qualities and he's a point of reference," said Allegri.
"I'm happy with how he played, given he hadn't played for a while.
"Winning is never easy. Tonight we did it our way. They were organised and did well on the counter-attack, attacking with five men.
"Over time I think it will come down to the Barca match, but we'll see and take it one game at a time."
The Czechs' coach, Pavel Vrba, was reasonably happy with his team but suggested the penalty was harsh.
"We created many chances to score but obviously we played against a team who are on another level," he said.
"We showed our quality. Unfortunately we missed chances, but Milan also had other chances. I'm quite satisfied.
"I haven't seen (the penalty) again yet but I think it was very severe from the referee. These things can happen but obviously it influenced the game.
"The biggest problem for us was that Ibrahimovic was fit and came back into the team. He effectively decided this game."
A thrilling opening 45 minutes remained goalless but could have produced a rugby score.
Vaclav Pilar sent a cross over from the left for Marek Bakos to meet with a header but Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati made a flying one-handed save.
Ibrahimovic then got down the right and picked out Cassano right in front of goal but Marek Cech saved his low shot with his legs.
Again the Swede almost put Cassano through but David Limbersky slid in to save the day and moments later Cech plunged to his right to beat away Cassano's curler from 20 yards.
Ignazio Abate crossed for Mark van Bommel but his stooping header went high before, at the other end, Pavel Horvath's shot was deflected over.
Cassano had another low shot saved by Cech, who then made an amazing stop to deny Ibrahimovic on 32 minutes when the Swede was picked out, alone and unmarked 10 yards out, by another good cross from Abate.
Ibrahimovic was also guilty of dallying with a chance before Cech saved his left-foot effort.
Viktoria opened up Milan like a tin on 39 minutes after a good move involving Bakos and Daniel Kolar, but Horvath was too precise in his finish and placed his shot wide of the upright.
Clarence Seedorf sent a cross-cum-shot flashing along the six-yard box but no-one followed it in.
It was a tailor-made opportunity for Filippo Inzaghi, watching on frustrated in the stands as he has not even been included in Milan's 25-man Champions League squad.
Milan took the lead in contentious fashion in the 53rd minute after German referee Florian Meyer awarded a penalty against Marian Cisovsky when a flick from Ibrahimovic hit his arm from point-blank range.
Ibrahimovic made no mistake from the spot.
Milan almost got a second on a rapier counter but after good work from Seedorf and Ibrahimovic, Cassano fired over.
Plzen were not out of it though, and Abbiati had to get down well to save from Horvath.
The killer second goal on 66 minutes was pure class. Ibrahimovic held off his marker in taking down a long ball, teased the defence and then slipped in Cassano to dink the ball over Cech.
It was Milan's 2,000th goal since Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi bought the club in 1986.