Soccer-Late Balotelli penalty gives Seedorf winning Milan start


(Adds Seedorf quotes)

Jan 19 (Reuters) - New coach Clarence Seedorf thanked AC Milan for having the courage to appoint him after watching his side beat Hellas Verona 1-0 with a late Mario Balotelli penalty on his debut on Sunday.

"The focus has been to rediscover the joy of playing, to do training sessions with the ball," the Dutchman, who had no previous coaching experience and only took charge of his first practice on Thursday, told reporters.

"The club has had courage to appoint me just as they did with Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello," he added. "I'm happy for the team as there is a lot of work to do and winning makes it easier."

Despite the win, it was another unconvincing performance from Milan who struggled to create chances and always looked vulnerable in defence.

Balotelli side-footed home in the 82nd minute after Verona defender Alejandro Gonzalez had needlessly fouled Kaka, tripping the Brazilian with a clumsy tackle even though the ball was already heading out of play.

Milan remained 11th with 25 points after only their sixth league win in 20 attempts this season.

Seedorf, who left Milan 18 months ago after spending ten years of his playing career there, was playing for Brazilian side Botafogo until Tuesday, when he received the invitation to take charge of Milan.

The 37-year-old immediately cut short his playing career to accept the challenge and replace Massimiliano Allegri, who was fired last Monday after three-and-a-half years in charge.

"Our rapport over 10 years helped the club understand a lot about me, as it was a long and intense time together on and off the field," said Seedorf.

"The club hierarchy got an idea of who I am, what I'm like and my competence in the world of football."

The disappointingly small San Siro crowd had to wait 38 minutes for the first real chance when Balotelli cut inside and fired in a powerful low shot which was well saved by Verona goalkeeper Rafael, who denied Balotelli again one minute later when he blocked a free kick.

The first half ended with Riccardo Montolivo's drive flying narrowly wide of Rafael's goal.

The second half followed a similar pattern as Milan struggled to put together moves and produced their chances in quick flurries.

Robinho hit the post with a deflected shot in the 68th and in the following minute Balotelli threatened with a shot on the turn which was scooped up by Rafael.

Verona nearly went ahead when Martinho broke down the left and his shot was turned away by Christian Abbiati, who shortly afterwards was nearly caught napping by Romulo's dipping long-range effort from 30 metres.

Seedorf paid tribute to the maverick Balotelli. "He's a nice guy and a great talent who will be good for Milan and Italy. I hope I am able to help him improve, he has shown great willingness to be part of this change." (Writing by Brian Homewood in BernE; Editing by Rex Gowar)

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