It is a meeting of football’s devils tonight as Manchester United’s Red Devils travel to the San Siro to face up to il Diavolo of Milan.
The game is full of sub-plots on both sides – it will be David Beckham’s first match against his old side – if he plays, it will be Rio Ferdinand’s first game since the Manchester derby, Milan will be looking for European success having failed to go beyond the Last 16 since they won in 2007 and there will also be the inevitable question of which manager can outplay the other – experience versus youth.
Milan will be well aware of the United’s counter-attacking style and will be particularly cautious of Wayne Rooney’s threat to their aging defence. They will welcome back Alessandro Nesta and hope that Thiago Silva is fit enough after being substituted in the weekend match against Udinese. Going forward, Milan’s hopes lie with their two Brazilians – Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato. Ronnie was showing signs of recapturing his World Player of the Year form before a 2-0 January league defeat to Inter knocked the wind out of his sails. Pato has just returned from a two-month lay-off and will be eager to pit his scorching talent against the rigidity of the Manchester defence.
Statistics point to a Milan victory, with the travelling team having failed to beat the Rossoneri over two legs on four occasions, most recently in 2007’s semi-final 3-0 defeat when Milan went on to beat Liverpool in the final. However, both sides have undergone significant changes in character since then and Sir Alex Ferguson will believe his players are now stronger than when they lost three years ago. Meanwhile Milan’s form in the competition has been unpredictable, impressing in away victories to Marseille and Real Madrid, falling to FC Zurich at home.
Leonardo is not the tactician Carlo Ancelotti was at Milan but he knows how important it will be for his side to build a lead at home, and conceding an away goal would be detrimental in their efforts to make the quarter-finals. In Pato’s absence, Milan have looked to Ronaldinho to provide the attacking impetuous and with the youngster’s return to the fold, Milan’s front-line represents a real threat of pace and unpredictable ingenuity that will test Ferdinand, Wes Brown and Jonny Evans over the two legs. Milan’s game will revolve around these two running at and testing the United full-backs and centre-backs with their trickery. If one is on form, expect a Milan goal, if both are, expect a tough night for United.
With Ryan Giggs injured for the away side, Ji-Sung Park is more than likely to play on the left flank. With exception to the final last year, Ferguson has got it tactically right for the last 18 months when playing in Europe. The midfield will be where the match is won or lost and Ferguson will know the importance of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in closing down Andrea Pirlo and cutting off raking passes to Milan’s Brazilians on either flank. Rooney will provide the attacking outlet for United, although how much he can affect the game will depend on the support he receives from runners from midfield. Regardless, the England striker is in the form of his life and will be looking for any opportunity to test the bi-polar talents of Dida in Milan’s goal.
This is going to be an incredibly tight affair with neither side wanting to make errors. Milan are not as strong as they once were, but with home advantage they will not be easy to break down. If Manchester United can take an away goal back to the Theatre of Dreams it is hard to see how Milan will be able to recover, but European football loves to throw up surprises.
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