Sir Alex Ferguson has warned his players prior to tonight’s match with AC Milan in the San Siro not to get caught up in the media circus that is David Beckham. Ever since United were first drawn against Milan, the focus has firmly been on Beckham with this week’s clash just a precursor to the main draw of his first return to Old Trafford on the opposing side in three weeks time. As is often the case with Beckham, his very presence is a distraction and has seemingly taken much away from what should be an eagerly anticipated clash between two sides who have both won the competition in the last five years.
In truth, both sides are far too experienced to let their emotions get the better of them and United will simply be focused on the task in hand as they know if they can achieve a good away result then it will be extremely difficult for Milan to prevail at Old Trafford. Gary Neville epitomises that experience and although he is very unlikely to start the game, the United club captain will instill the required focus into the players prior to the match. He has already had his bit to say regarding the furor surrounding his best friend, stating that it is much more likely to affect Beckham than United as the Red Devils are familiar with facing old teammates.
Looking to the match and how the squads will line up, United will look to build on some strong recent away performances. Rio Ferdinand should be welcomed back into the back four and may be partnered by Wes Brown, as Ferguson has a lot of faith in the Manchester-born centre-half, often calling him England’s most natural defender. Both Brown and Jonny Evans have been in good form of late but it is likely that Ferguson will feel that Brown’s experience will ensure he gets the nod over Evans. It is expected that United will line up with Wayne Rooney occupying the lone role he is becoming increasingly used to, assisted by two wide men required to get up and support him while also providing a defensive shield for the full-backs.
Having had his appearances limited since his impressive performance away at Arsenal, Ji Sung Park should take his place in the line-up as his energetic displays always prove fruitful come the away legs of the knock-out stages of this competition. It was against Milan that Park arguably had his finest hour in the Champions League, being the star performer in the 2005 PSV Eindhoven side that was so cruelly beaten by the Rossoneri at the semi-final stage of the tournament – he will be looking to exact some form of revenge come this encounter.
A key area of where this match will be won or lost will be in the midfield with Milan likely to mirror United’s tactics by lining up with three central midfielders. The man surrounded by all the hype has in fact been on the bench for the last two encounters but many feel that Beckham will come back into the side to partner Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini. Whether this is the case or whether Milan opt to continue with Gennaro Gattuso, one thing is certain – they will have an abundance of experience in midfield. All undoubtedly class players but in the twilight of their careers, United’s Darren Fletcher must surely be confident of successfully exerting his naturally aggressive game on Milan’s midfield. Italian sides are often uncomfortable with the Scot’s energetic displays as being put under that much physical pressure is not something that they are used to. As is so often the case when it comes to vital European matches, the influence of Fletcher is likely to hold the key for United.
Similarly, much of United’s hopes will once again rest on the shoulders of Rooney. The in-form England forward – his performance at this summer’s World Cup could largely determine his nation’s fate – has continued to add fuel to the view that he is a better player than Cristiano Ronaldo, and he will once again be required to showcase this at the San Siro.
Like United, Rooney has often struggled against Milan, looking inexperienced against the likes of Paulo Maldini in his first season for United and despite scoring a late winner in the home leg in 2007, was largely ineffective in the return fixture at the San Siro. If Rooney is to truly become the player he looks so capable of being, he must not only play well in the latter stages of the tournament, but carry United in the tough away fixtures – a burden that fell on the shoulders of Ronaldo.
After all the talk, expectancy and mutual respect surrounding tonight’s fixture, it’s time for the players to rest their mouths and let their feet do the talking.
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