With Sir Alex Ferguson so keen to stress to his players the need to concentrate on the task in hand rather than being sucked into the emotions of playing against David Beckham, it seemed as if his side was not listening for the first 30 minutes of the encounter at the San Siro.
The side which started against Milan was full of experience with only Rafael da Silva, Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher, Nani and Ji-Sung Park having not started in the triumphant Champions League final two years ago. It should therefore have been expected that United would start the match with the required composure to keep it tight early on and then slowly stamp their authority on the game. Clearly this is not how it worked out. Rio Ferdinand started only his fourth game in three months and looked rusty in the opening exchanges, while his partner, Evans, often so comfortable on big European nights, gave the ball away needlessly on numerous occasions early in the first half.
Rafael da Silva, trusted with the job of marking one of the most famous players produced by his home country – Ronaldinho – coped admirably. A little too impetuous in the first half, the young Brazilian could be accused of diving in and being outwitted by his countryman on a couple of occasions. Once Rafael got to grips with his opponent he gained the upper hand and put in some well-timed tackles to stem the flow from the Milan left flank. Ronaldinho clearly felt confident against the young Rafael and his tail was up early on, showing glimpses of what he produced week in week out during his Barcelona glory days. Once Rafael was able to get to grips with him, the Milan No 80 became more subdued and at times seemingly uninterested. Ferguson obviously has great faith in the 19-year-old Brazilian – starting him in this match when the more experienced Wes Brown was an option, clearly outlined who is his first-choice right-back. The only real criticism that can be leveled towards Rafael was that he gave the ball away which resulted in Milan’s second goal. The youngster will clearly learn from this mistake.
The defensive nature of the performance did improve, but United were fortunate not to be punished and in truth it was down to Milan’s misgivings that the game wasn’t beyond them after half an hour. Milan outlined their intentions by selecting Klaus Jan Huntelaar to spearhead their attack. A player excluded from Real Madrid’s Champions League squad for the knock-out stages of last season’s tournament, Huntelaar looks unlikely to fulfill the promise once shown at Ajax and was guilty of missing a great opportunity when his side was gifted the ball by Evans. If United are guilty of presenting the opposition with chances like this, other opposition may not be as generous in return.
Having gained the upper hand in the encounter, the United back four were still shaky and looked extremely ragged at 3-2 – again it was only down to the Milanese side that they were not punished. The defensive displays clearly must improve if the Red Devils are to stand any chance of going one better than last season and winning the competition for the second time in three years.
Much of these defensive frailties have already been witnessed in this season’s competition especially in the home ties against CSKA Moscow and Wolfsburg but what United hadn’t been able to rely on in those encounters was the form of Wayne Rooney. Rooney has hit a real purple patch during the break from European action – he hit his first two goals in the 2009/10 Champions League on Tuesday night. With him in the side on current form, United can never be written off for any match, even if they are being run ragged at the back. Rooney has been earning all the plaudits for his improved goal-scoring record and his development playing as a solo striker has been tremendous. At times in the second half he took the game to Milan single handedly, receiving the ball with his back to goal, turning and running at the defence. A once world-class Alessandro Nesta was frightened every time the United No 10 attacked him at pace. Rooney has illustrated that he is fast becoming the complete striker by dispelling the myth of his poor ability in the air and clinically dispatching his two headers.
The England man will again be asked to produce another fine display when United travel to Goodison Park this weekend to face his former club in what may prove a pivotal encounter in the race for this season’s Premier League title. The United fans will be hoping that their current hero can produce another trademark display and that the defence so often picked apart on Tuesday, minus Rio Ferdinand, can hold firm against a Toffees side buoyed by their recent win over Chelsea.
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