MILAN - AC Milan coach Clarence Seedorf claimed the Serie A giants have rediscovered the joy of playing football despite requiring a late Mario Balotelli spot-kick to secure a precious 1-0 win over Verona on Sunday.
Seedorf has been heralded as Milan's potential saviour since former coach Massimiliano Allegri was sacked after a 4-3 defeat to Sassuolo last week left the Rossoneri 30 points behind leaders Juventus.
For his first game at the helm of the side for whom he made 300 appearances in 10 golden years (2002-2012), Seedorf sent out an ultra-offensive 4-2-3-1 formation with Robinho, Kaka and Japan's Keisuke Honda playing behind Balotelli.
But despite creating a host of chances against Andrea Mandorlini's high-flying visitors, Milan had to rely on Balotelli's 82nd-minute penalty to secure what was only their sixth win in 20 games.
"We dedicate this win to the new coach," Balotelli told Sky Sport Italia.
"Because the first game in charge of a team is always difficult.
"The coach asked us to play as four strikers and to press from the start. It worked well... we had a lot of possession and when you see more of the ball it's a lot better."
Seedorf was pleased with the Rossoneri's performance on what was effectively the first real day of his fledgling coaching career.
"Milan have rediscovered the joy of playing football," said the 37-year-old Dutchman, who only gave up his playing career with Brazilian side Botafogo last week.
Milan's aim over the remaining 18 league games is to clinch a top three place in the Champions League, although with Juventus, Roma and Napoli flying high and Fiorentina showing promise that task looks very difficult.
Juventus and Roma were both on form in their respective games on Saturday, the champions edging an impressive Sampdoria 4-2 and Roma beating struggling Livorno 3-0 at the Olympic Stadium.
Juve's 12th successive win, a feat not achieved since the 1928-1929 season, allowed Antonio Conte's men to retain their eight-point lead over Roma.
But the Juve coach wasn't entirely satisfied: "We'd prepared for and interpreted the game just as we'd planned to, but otherwise it would have been difficult for us to beat a Sampdoria side in top form.
"We need to be more focused."
Roma's 3-0 win, thanks to first-half goals from Mattia Destro and Kevin Strootman and a late strike from Adem Ljajic, became even more valuable when third-placed Napoli dropped points in a 2-2 draw away to Bologna on Sunday.
Rolando Bianchi opened the scoring just after the half hour for the hosts and despite Gonzalo Higuain levelling from the spot and Jose Callejon giving Napoli a late lead, the Bologna striker levelled on 90 minutes.
Napoli remained third but are now 12 points behind Juventus - a gap Slovakian midfielder Marek Hamsik believes rules out a challenge for the 'scudetto'.
"The gap is quite big now... I think it's too much," Hamsik, who made his first start since being sidelined with injury in November, said.
Napoli's draw was also appreciated by Fiorentina, who beat struggling Catania 3-0 away thanks to a brace from Juve and Milan flop Alessandro Matri to close to withing three points of third place.
Matri signed for the Florence club in midweek having struggled to make an impact with the Rossoneri and produced a first-half brace after Chilean Matias Fernandez had opened the scoring for the visitors.
Inter's woes continued, meanwhile, with a 1-0 away defeat in rainy Genoa although Walter Mazzarri's men moved back up to fifth after Verona's setback.
"We had plenty of chances to score at the end and (goalkeeper) Mattia Perin was impressive. We gave it everything and it's hard to play more attacking football than we did," said Mazzarri.