Rooney And Fletcher Inspire United To Historic Win
Manchester United never scored a goal at the San Siro when playing AC Milan and lost all four games played there. So, when Ronaldinho gave Milan the lead with a deflected effort in the third minute, things looked bleak.
And they could have been much bleaker as United's unease at the back spread through the entire team. Rafael looked like a 19-year-old with little experience - oh, I wonder why that was - while Ferdinand showed every sign of a man who barely played football in the last four months. We kept giving the ball away in our third and it could have resulted in disaster had Milan's players been a little more ruthless.
Van der Sar kept us in the game, not just with good saves - he did not need to make many, Milan had trouble with hitting the target - but with his calming presence. Our midfield spent the entire first half coming to terms with its line-up: Fletcher was on the left of the midfield three while Park played through the middle, behind Rooney. In theory, this made sense: Park had to smother Pirlo (which he did effectively) while Evra and Fletcher should have provided enough defensive cover and attacking verve on the left.
In practice, however, we were usually looking for Nani as Evra barely dared to vacate his position to join the attacks - a sensible thing, considering that he wasn't at his best anyway and probably didn't want to be caught out of position. Nani, however, was dreadful. I can't figure out why he always whipped in crosses from deep, why he never tried to beat the average Antonini on one on one, why he did not try to bring the central midfielders into play.
It is significant that the brilliant move that brought about our fortuitous equaliser was conceived when Nani finally played an incisive pass - and even that was from the halfway line so we needed the composure and good passing (!) of Park, Scholes, Carrick, and Fletcher, with the latter whipping in a good cross that Scholes totally failed to connect with but the ball hit his standing left leg and trickled into the net.
The goal changed the game and knocked the stuffing out of Milan. They were no longer coming forward with the same conviction and though they had two good chances at the start of the second half you had to feel their best chance to get a good result had gone.
Still, it needed a substitution to completely change the dynamics of the game. Valencia was brought on for the woefully ineffective Nani and things were different in an instant. The 38-year-old Favalli who earlier in the game replaced the injured Antonini simply could not live with Antonio's pace and minutes after his introduction the Ecuadorian whipped in a perfect cross for Rooney who had the measure of Bonera in the air and sent a looping header into the far corner to give United the lead.
That DESTROYED Milan. You could see the remaining little confidence draining out of them, their shoulders dropped and they allowed United to run riot. A few minutes later the thoroughly excellent Fletcher got the ball near the edge of the area, looked up and sent a perfectly weighted ball over the top of Milan's defence into the path of Rooney who timed his run to perfection and headed past the stranded Dida.
Milan shot their bolt it was clear and United should have wrapped the tie up. Rooney could have had his hat-trick twice but now it was our turn to be guilty of profligacy and when Rafael's positioning let him down yet again we gave Milan a way back into the game though I have to admit that Seedorf's goal was preposterously brilliant. The Dutchman came on for the ineffective Beckham and though he added little to Milan's football right up until that goal, his backheel was sublime.
And Milan, buoyed by the chance of an unlikely fightback, gathered all the energy left in their ageing bodies and spurred by the support of a crowd baying blood they made a real fist of it and missed two really good chances to equalise. Ambrosini's effort was deflected for a corner, from which either Thiago Silva or Nesta could have had a free header, dead centre, 8 yards from goal - had they been able to decide which one of them should go for it. They were unable to and so clattered into each other, sending the ball harmlessly wide.
United survived and claimed a priceless win. We broke the curse of the San Siro; at Old Trafford, we never lost in the Champions League by a scoreline that would put us out on March 10; Rooney is on fire, scoring his 24th and 25th goals of a remarkable season and United are gathering momentum at the perfect time. Long may it continue!