AC Milan's season -- a classic Italian tale of trial, redemption and revenge worthy of the city's famous Scala opera house -- reached an ecstatic finale on Wednesday as they captured the European Cup for a seventh time with a 2-1 win over Liverpool in Athens.
For Milan's coach Carlo Ancelotti and his players, victory over the English side tasted all the sweeter for their famous capitulation in the same game against the same opponents two years ago, when they had been leading by three goals at halftime, only to end up losing on penalties.
For Milan's legendary captain, Paolo Maldini, there was also the personal achievement of winning the cup for a fifth time in a record eighth final appearance at the age of 39 -- though he vowed to play on next season.
"It's the fifth victory for me, and still very beautiful," he said. "Finishing with this trophy would be nice, but I want to play in the Supercup, and another Serie A championship. Then there is the Intercontinental Cup. And then I want to try to win the Champions League again next year. It'd be fantastic."
"It is the greatest victory we've had," said Ancelotti. "Few people believed we could do it, but we've done something extraordinary. Very few people or fans expected Milan to win this most important of trophies this season, perhaps nobody expected it."
With a side built around the mercurial skills of the Brazilian playmaker Kaka, the good cop-bad cop midfield partnership of Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso and a wily, experienced defence marshalled by Alessando Nesta and Maldini, Milan always had the quality on paper to compete with the best.
But while European finals may be a birthright for a side second only to Real Madrid on the all-time Champions League winners list, this has been no ordinary campaign for the Rossoneri.
The club began the season with its name tarnished by its involvement in the match-fixing scandal that rocked Italian football and saw archrivals Juventus demoted to Serie B.
Milan got off lightly by comparison. A 15-point penalty was reduced to eight on appeal and they were reinstated in the Champions League having initially been barred from European competition.
But the team's form was also hurt; with Milan already languishing in the lower reaches of Serie A as they struggled to shake off the weight of that eight-point penalty, the club suffered three successive league defeats at home for the first time in 40 years.
In the Champions League, Milan advanced painfully through the group stage, moving Ancelotti to comment after a bleak home defeat by French side Lille, "If Milan are what we saw tonight, then it's total darkness, as we were awful."
Since then however, their season has been one of steady improvement. Edging themselves up to fourth in Serie A, it was in the Champions League that Milan's recovery was at its most potent.
After squeezing past Scottish champions Celtic in the last 16, they overcame a 2-2 home draw with Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals by beating the German side 2-0 in Bavaria.
A thrilling clash with Manchester United in the semis saw Kaka grab two priceless away goals at Old Trafford in a 3-2 defeat, before Milan wrapped up the tie with a 3-0 win back at the San Siro, matching United's natural free-flowing rhythms with a counterattacking swagger of their own that belied Italian football's reputation for defensive negativity.
Wednesday's final proved a more staccato affair, with Milan seemingly content to sit back for long passages of play in which Liverpool appeared the more threatening. But two classic poacher's goals by Filippo Inzaghi late in each half were enough to steer Milan to a success that has served to exorcise many of their demons.
In a season in which Italian football has been dragged through the mud by match-fixing and football violence, Wednesday's result perhaps completed the process of rehabilitation that began with the country's World Cup success in Germany last July