Date:Wednesday April 25 2007
United carry a one-goal advantage into the second leg of their Champions League semi-final against Milan as a late Rooney goal sinks the Italians.
A fantastic European night at Old Trafford again. United never approached the heights they had reached during the 7-1 demolition of Roma but were still good value for their win.
It started wonderfully, Rooney's early shot blocked by Nesta. The resulting corner was reasonable as was Ronaldo's header but Dida's attempts to save were pathetic and the ball landed in the net.
Milan were shocked by the early goal, that was clear and for a few minutes, they were given the runaround. Carrick's mis-hit effort was brilliantly parried by Dida to ensure the visitors would not get into deep trouble after only the very first part of the two-legged contest.
But, of course, what we had feared has indeed come to happen. A moment of pathetic defending and a blunder from Edwin van der Sar allowed Kaká to equalise and Milan were in the driving seat, playing as they love: holding the ball, patiently waiting for openings. United's midfield of Fletcher, Scholes and Carrick was outdone by Milan's Pirlo, Gattuso and Seedorf but the Italians looked to be happy with the 1-1 draw so they did not look like scoring again.
Yet they did, in agonizing fashion. Honestly, a team of professionals simply should not give away goals like this one. The very thought of Evra clattering into Heinze, with Brown in no man's land again makes me shudder... Kaká was presented with an easy chance and of course he made no mistake.
It suddenly became an uphill struggle for the Reds to save this semi-final from becoming a disaster and one has to admit that though Carrick missed a howler early in the second half, Milan could have scored again as they completely overrun us in a five-minute spell.
That served as a wake-up call for United, encouraged by injuries to Maldini and Gattuso, and they had a real go at their opponents. Scholes was ineffective up to the 59th minute but a sublime piece of skill by the Ginger Ninja allowed Rooney to score and from that moment, only one team was on the park.
United boast a squad that's average age is three years below that of Milan's and it was clear that the Italians were tiring whereas we were drawing up more and more energy. I must say immense credit must go to Darren Fletcher. I think he was a giant in the second half, first to every ball and distributing it to great effect. He did what Michael Carrick did when Roma visited the Theatre of Dreams.
By the way, Carrick. The former Tottenham man was overwhelmed by his defensive duties so he could not repeat his recent stellar performances but nevertheless he gave a good display. Evra, Ronaldo, Giggs, Scholes, Rooney and Fletcher (really, I'm dead serious) ensured our attacking play would never cease to be imaginative - just look at our equaliser.
Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo were others who never reached the heights we know they're capable of but for that, credit must go to Milan. They forced Ronaldo to play as near the touchline as possible and facing usually two defenders with only minimal space allowed to him made the Portuguese deeply uncomfortable on occasions. Yet he still managed to play himself into threatening positions more often than not so it was a good performance.
I'm sure Carlo Ancelotti watched our 7-1 victory over Roma countless times as Ryan Giggs was treated in a way that suggested Milan would only want to see him in prison, behind double bars. Whenever the ball found him, two defenders were all over him at the very moment. But Ryan Giggs would not be Ryan Giggs if he didn't find a way through: United missed some chances in the last 30 minutes but the Welshman's perfect pass and a thunderbolt from Rooney ensured we had the edge after 90 minutes of breathtaking football.
Wayne Rooney is a big-game player if there ever was one, no doubt. He banished his Champions League demons and now seems to relish great European nights. His performance is the biggest positive of this game. Of course, the two away goals scored by Milan mean they need to overcome us by a single goal at the San Siro but at least they are forced to come to us, thus leaving space.
With Kaká tiring, and thoroughly contained in the second half, Milan offered no attacking play at all. Alberto Gilardino could have been in the stands, his impact would not have been less significant. Their over-reliance on the individual skills of Kaká might be very helpful for us at the San Siro, even with a makeshift defense that will miss Patrice Evra who was booked for some unknown reason - probably for dissent, but on this basis half of the Italian teams should be booked in every game they happen to play.
If Gary will be back, Van der Sar will be in good form and we'll be able to make the most of the fact Milan must attack, then we have a very good chance of getting into the final. If we miss out - no tragedy. It was another memorable European night which would not be forgotten, not even if we lost.
Date:Wednesday April 25 2007
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