ger_mac_bylineManchester United began with five across the middle while AC Milan reverted to a 4-3-3 formation looking to release the returning Alex Pato at the earliest opportunity.

Much was made of David Beckham’s surprise starting berth but the England international made an instant impact curling a free-kick into the United area from which Ronaldinho volleyed a deflected effort into the net for an early AC Milan lead.

The San Siro rocked to its core and celebrated their opening goal with typical Italian gusto as Ronaldinho danced in the corner with his team mates. The Brazilian has been on the receiving end of plenty of criticism from the Italian media and even his own club in recent months but looked sharp on the night and was the catalyst for many of Milan’s best moves.

In stark contrast Rio Ferdinand looked indecisive on his return to first team action and his stilted first half performance mirrored that of his team mates. Time and again the Premier League Champions gave the ball away cheaply in their own half yet AC weren’t able to capitalise with Huntelar, Ambrosini and Ronaldinho all missing the target when well positioned.

The visitors made little inroads and relied on a couple of brief counter-attacks in meek response. Yet despite playing poorly and being guilty of giving away possession,n United remained in the tie thanks to the Italians profligacy in front of goal.

The game was turned on its head in the 36th minute when the visitors conjured an equaliser completely against the run of play. Paul Scholes has rarely left his manager down on the big European nights and was on hand to completely miss-kick a Darren Fletcher centre beyond the despairing dive of Dida to bring parity to the scoreline.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

The shock concession of that away goal spurred AC Milan back into action with the electrifying Ronaldinho breaking two tackles before stinging the hands of Van Der Sar. United’s defensive frailties continued with the concession of a needless free-kick on the edge of the box just before the interval which the largely ineffective Beckham skied over the bar.

The second half’s pattern changed little from that of the first with a free Pato header failing to hit the target. United’s lethargic approach play invited AC onto them resulting in a Pirlo free-kick forcing United’s keeper to go full length. At this stage of the tie you would have expected Manchester United to try and capitalise on scoring an away goal and go for the proverbial jugular against a Milan side unable to convert the numerous chances that came their way.

Instead the visitors sat back and relied on the counter-attack to create a couple of Wayne Rooney half-chances to raise the pulses of their supporters. Luckily for United though AC Milan failed to respond and paid the price once again when a pin-point Valencia centre found the head of Wayne Rooney who planted a terrific header into the net for a 2-1 lead.

The Italians were dreadful from that point onwards, never looking remotely like the sprightly side who dominated the opening 30 minutes. Milan simply lost their mojo after falling 2-1 behind and allowed United far too much time and space resulting in another magnificent Rooney header putting the night’s result beyond doubt.

The remainder of the tie was a scrappy affair with a disorganised and uninspired AC Milan seemingly longing for the final whistle. United should have been professional enough to see out the final minutes but once again their defensive instability allowed the home side to pull a goal back seven minutes from the end. Ronaldinho was afforded too much space on the edge of the box and his threaded pass found Seedorf completely unmarked who swept home to revitalise AC Milan.

The dying minutes saw a frantic Milan pour forward in search of an unlikely equaliser. The ridiculous dismissal of Carrick compounded the visitors’ attempts to keep their opponents out and the Italians had the United defence scrambling on more than one occasion during stoppage time.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

But United held on for a famous away win safe in the knowledge that three away goals should be enough to progress despite a fractious performance.

Three reasons for Man Utd to be cheerful:

* Wayne Rooney’s class

There simply isn’t a better player in the world right now. Rooney saw little of the ball as the lone striker in the first half but converted two headed opportunities when they came his way in the second period to seal a famous victory. Yes United are over-reliant on him but if Rooney can maintain his current form until the end of the season there is every chance his club will be back in the Champions League final.

* The competitive fire still burns in manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

When most managers would have been high-fiving their coaches and subs having just equalised, the Scotsman took the opportunity to chew the arse off Johnny Evans for his inept defending just prior to United’s goal. Ferguson’s decision to replace the ineffective Nani with Valencia reaped instant dividends with the sub’s first contribution being the centre from which Rooney scored United’s second. If there is one manager who can drag United back to another Champions League final it is Ferguson.

* The unsung heroes

Week in, week out Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and even Paul Scholes cover every blade of grass in closing their opponents down when United don’t have the ball. The same triumvirate are just as effective when in possession marrying United’s rarely lauded work ethic with the kind of passing quality necessary to unlock the meanest of European defences. Those traits were best exemplified in United’s 3-2 victory in the San Siro and should be enough to progress to the last eight.

Three reasons Man United should be worried

* Defensive Frailties exposed

The continuing absence and missing influence of Nemandja Vidic is exposing United’s back four against quality attacks. Jonny Evans is a decent defender still learning his trade but lacks the positioning and aerial authority that United take for granted when their Serbian international is on the pitch. Ferdinand also looks a much more composed defender with Vidic by his side.

* Sloppy passing

A trait you wouldn’t normally associate with Man United but the English Champions will be punished by more clinical attacks in the latter stages of the tournament if they continue to give the ball away cheaply in their own half. AC Milan’s strikers wasted a succession of opportunities to win the tie but United will not get away with a similar sloppy display in the next leg or beyond.

* Wayne Rooney’s temper

Granted he scored twice and the bullish striker is enjoying his most prolific season but his fiery temper always remains bubbling away just below the surface. Left to forage as a lone striker he saw little of the ball last night until the game opened up in the second period. A couple of nasty challenges went unnoticed and a silly yellow for arguing a free-kick demonstrate Rooney’s frustrations may well get the better of him before the end of the competition if he is not careful.

Ger McCarthy  is the author of Off Centre Circle, which chronicles the  curious life of  a West Cork League junior footballer.

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