MILAN (AFP) - Brazilian Kaka made his long-awaited return for injury-ravaged Milan in a hard-fought 1-0 win over Udinese which came courtesy of Valter Birsa's first-half strike at the San Siro on Saturday.
Milan hosted the northerners without several regulars, with Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy, Giampaolo Pazzini, Mattia De Sciglio and Daniele Bonera all ruled out through injury.
Nigel De Jong and Philippe Mexes were both suspended and the Rossoneri suffered a further blow when goalkeeper Christian Abbiati was sidelined hours before kick-off with a knock.
Brazilian goalkeeper Gabriel, 21, was handed his Serie A debut and in a balanced first half had little to do as Massimiliano Allegri's strugglers looked to make up for a poor start to the season which had left them 13 points behind leaders Roma.
Four days before hosting Barcelona in the Champions League, Allegri was buoyed by his depleted side's performance.
"It was a good performance and we deserved the win," said Allegri.
"Despite having so many players out, and Abbiati pulling out this morning, the boys did well throughout the whole 90 minutes.
"(M'Baye) Niang created a few chances when he came on and Kaka made a good impression. We have to try and build on this to make up for what we've lost this season so far."
Udinese coach Francesco Guidolin lamented: "We came up against a stronger side tonight but we absolutely must improve our performances away from home." Birsa was given a role in the 'hole' behind Robinho and Alessandro Matri and seized the day with an energetic performance before being replaced by Niang midway through the second half.
The Slovenian took only seven minutes to test Udinese's Croatian 'keeper Ivan Kelava at his near post and minutes after leading a promising counter-attack broke the deadlock in style.
Following a neat one-two with Robinho, the Slovenian curled a superb first-time shot past the fingertips of Kelava and into the top right hand corner.
Before the interval Udinese fought back with Gabriel Silva sending a drive wide and Dusan Basta seeing a deflected quick-fire shot miss the target.
Guidolin replaced Basta with Luis Muriel just before the hour and the visitors came close when Antonio Di Natale's curling freekick, after Silva was fouled by Ignazio Abate, was tipped onto the crossbar and out for a corner by Gabriel.
At the other end Poli showed great skill to evade his marker but opted to square a long pass into space instead of taking his chance at goal.
Niang replaced Birsa on 68 minutes and moments later flashed a volley well wide of target, one of several misses to be lamented by the French teenaged striker.
Robihno then did well on the left flank to deliver for Matri but his lay-off was wasted.
When Poli was given another chance after dribbling his way into space he unleashed a rising shot which Kelava did well to block at his near post.
Matri sent a shot high and wide after Robinho's delivery from the left before making way for Kaka, the Brazilian returning to the fray in the 77th minute after a month-long lay-off due to an adductor injury.
Udinese spurned the chance for a late equaliser when Muriel was bundled off the ball by a backtracking Abate as he teed up to shoot following Di Natale's smart through ball.
Milan could have made it more but Niang wasted two solid chances in the closing minutes.
Earlier, Cagliari celebrated a return to their home ground, following an 18-month absence due to ongoing reconstruction work, with a precious 2-1 win over 10-man Catania.
Roma claimed their eighth win in as many games with a 2-0 defeat of Napoli on Friday and now lead Juventus by five points ahead of the Bianconeri's visit to Fiorentina on Sunday.