Manchester United take three vital away goals back to Old Trafford with them following victory in the San Siro tonight. A late goal from Clarence Seedorf will have given AC Milan a lifeline but the Premier League champions definitely hold pole position in the tie and will be firm favourites to proceed into the quarter finals following another masterful display from Wayne Rooney. Elsewhere in Europe, Lyon surprisingly beat Real Madrid courtesy of a Jean II Makoun strike and will try defend their one goal advantage in Madrid in a fortnight.
Alex Ferguson frequently says that his team never do things easily. His sentiments were once again proven true in this encounter when his side were forced to fight back from going behind inside just three minutes, before ultimately taking control of the tie.
AC Milan had not lost a European encounter in which they had taken the lead since their infamous implosion against Liverpool in 2005 and will feel that they had the chances to avoid having done so tonight. Never the less, it is United’s advantage to hold, although their delight will be somewhat tempered by the dismissal of Michael Carrick in added time.
Much of the pre game build up focused on David Beckham’s first game lining out against his old club and it seemed like destiny that he would have some influenece once he was named in Leonardo’s starting eleven. Sure enough, in just the second minute Beckham swung in a trademark free-kick which the United defense failed to deal with. Patrice Evra’s attempted clearance lofted toward Ronaldinho on the edge of the square and the Brazilian, who has regained some of his form and all of his swagger in recent times, struck it first time. The ball looked destined to head toward Edwin Van der Sar until it took a huge deflection off Michael Carrick and veered toward the goal leaving the goalkeeper with no chance.
The goal stunned United and they were lucky to still be in the tie following a Milan siege in the period that followed it. United were shell-shocked and looked as nervy as they had been all season. Ronaldinho was rolling back the years and his every flick and step over was met with rapturous cheers from the Milan faithful. The Brazilian was looking dangerous and should have doubled his and Milan’s tally shortly afterwards when Alexandre Pato teed him up in side the box only for his effort to be directed straight at Van Der Sar.
Manchester United slowly began to find their bearings. Nani was set free down the right on two occasions only for his crosses to fail in their probe for a United touch. Wayne Rooney was not pleased with these efforts and did not hesitate in letting the Portuguese man know. Nani was to have a night that resembled more of the frustrating periods of his career than those of his recent revival.
Despite seeing more of the ball, United continued to look unsure and were lucky not to be punished. Paul Scholes gifted a pass to Ronaldinho on the half way line and the ex-Barcelona and PSG man made his way menacingly to the opposition goal before dishing out a series of trademark stepovers. Rio Ferdinand was mesmerised and stuck out a leg in a poor effort to win the ball only to catch his opponent and bring him to the ground. Shouts for a penalty rang around the San Siro but went unheaded. Replays showed it was definitely a foul, however it was committed just outside the box. Nonetheless Milan smelled blood and Luca Antonini squandered another golden opportunity to increase his teams lead shortly afterwards, driving a low shot past the near post when the far side of the goal was the much better option.
The home sides dominance was shortly interrupted when Wayne Rooney, once again playing up front on his own, managed his first shot on goal after over twenty minutes of play. Rooneys left foot drive from outside the box went narrowly wide however.
Two more United mistakes almost saw Milan double their lead. First, poor defending from Rio Ferdinand saw Klaas Jan Huntelaar have a strike on goal. Soon afterward Jonny Evans gifted Massimo Ambrosini possession before the Italian again set up Huntelaar, whose second effort also went wide of the post.
The Rossinieri were soon made rue their missed chances. If the first goal had an element of luck to it, the seccond should see Paul Scholes racing to buy a lottery ticket as soon as the United plane touches back on home soil. In the 36th minute, Ji Sun Park sent Darren Fletcher free down the right and the Scot crossed a ball into a packed Milan box. The ball made its way toward Scholes whose right leg completely missed its trajectory, only for his standing left leg to divert the ball into the far side of the goal past a stranded Dida. United were level and nobody cared less how it came as the old adage of “they all count” rung out in commentary boxes across the continent.
Just before half time, Milan won a free kick outside the United box and there was never any question as to who was going to take it. Deep breaths were taken around the stadium as David Beckham stood over the ball in his unique fashion. The fairytale was not to occur however as his effort sailed well over the United bar.
The teams retreated for half time with neither able to believe that the score was currently all square. Manchester United are not a club who are often happy to sit on their laurels and their intent was spelled out during an Alex Ferguson interview prior to the restart – “We’ll go for more, that’s the nature of the club, we won’t hold on to what we’ve got”.
Despite these strong words the first chance of the half fell to Milan when a Giuseppe Favalli’s pin-point cross landed on the head of Alexandre Pato. The young striker’s effort was only good enough to find its way over the crossbar however, despite getting in a good position between Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand for his effort. Andrea Pirlo soon followed with a thunderous forty yard drive which was well tipped over by Van der Sar.
Ten minutes later and Ferguson made the change that saw the tie swing in his side’s favour. Antonio Valencia was sent on to replace the ineffectual Nani and it was not long before his introduction brought results.
In his first attack, Valencia was played down the United right and the Ecuadorian knocked the ball past his marker before crossing toward the back post where Wayne Rooney, almost perfectly mimicing Lionel Messi in last year’s final, rose highest before heading the ball back across goal and into the net. It was Rooneys first goal in the Champions League this season and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The twenty four year old is in the form of his life and shortly afterward added a second to his name, seemingly put the tie to bed in the process. Darren Fletcher chipped a neat ball in from the left hand side and Rooney, positioned between two defenders headed a neat finish past Dida in the Milan goal to bring the possibility of United’s first ever win in the San Siro another step closer.
This time around it was the Italian’s turn to be shellshocked and theylooked a defeated side until Clarence Seedorf, a replacement for the overall disappointing Beckham, scored with a neat flick from a Ronaldinho pass in the 86th minute to revive their hopes. Milan finished the game out on a high and could have snatched an equalizer if it were not for some more poor efforts on goal.
The final minutes saw some desperate defending from United who were also keen to waste time at any opportunity. Michael Carrick picked up a second yellow card for kicking the ball away following a Patrice Evra foul and will subsequently miss the second leg, to be held in a fortnight.
Overall it was a game decided by a team’s ability to take their chances. If Milan were that little bit more clinical it would be them and not United that would head into the return leg with something to defend. Nonetheless, there may well be life in the old dogs yet and Ferguson is well aware that the hard work is far from over, acknowledging that Milan’s “second goal has made it a game when there shouldn’t have been a game”.
AC Milan: Dida, Bonera, Nesta, Thiago Silva, Antonini (Favalli 38), Beckham (Seedorf 72) Pirlo, Ambrosini, Ronaldinho, Alexandre Pato, Huntelaar (Inzaghi 77)
Unused Subs: Abbiati, Gattuso, Flamini, Abate.
Man Utd: Van der Sar, Rafael Da Silva (Brown 90+1), Ferdinand, Jonathan Evans, Evra, Nani (Valencia 64), Carrick, Scholes, Fletcher, Park, Rooney.
Unused Subs: Kuszczak, Neville, Owen, Berbatov, Gibson.