1708: Champions League: Manchester U
by : Stephen Orford
Another clash of Europe’s big-hitters is in prospect as Manchester United play host to AC Milan in the Champions League, second round, first leg tonight (February 23).
The game could see the return to action of United’s prolific Dutch goal-getter Ruud Van Nistelrooy after a three month absence. Van Nistelrooy has scored a whopping 36 goals in 37 Champions League outings and leads all scorers in this season’s competition with eight. Only Raul of Real Madrid has scored more Champions League goals overall than Van Nistelrooy, who has netted 42 times in the competition during his career. If he maintains his position at the top of this season’s Champions League goalscoring charts he will become the first player to achieve this feat on three occasions, having done so in both 2002 and 2003. However, his exclusion from the squad which beat Everton in the FA Cup on Saturday (February 19) has to raise questions over his fitness, especially after such a long period out of action with an Achilles problem.
If the former PSV man plays he is likely to be partnered in attack by the less experienced, but no less dynamic Wayne Rooney. Standing in their way will be former United defender, Jaap Stam. Stam, a member of United’s 1999 Champions League winning team, will be joined at the heart of a tight-fisted Milan defence by the brilliant Allesandro Nesta who has recovered from flu. It will be the first time Stam has returned to Old Trafford since his acrimonious and somewhat hasty exit from Manchester in 2001. Since then Stam has had a spell at Lazio, and a spell on the sidelines following a drugs controversy, but now looks to be approaching the form that he showed in his all too brief spell at Old Trafford.
Further forward, Milan’s own superstar striker Andriy Shevchenko has a fractured cheekbone, so former Newcastle man Jon Dahl Tommason may start up front alongside exiled Chelsea striker Hernan Crespo. Milan are also boosted by the news that midfielder Andrea Pirlo is fit again, and should take his place in the centre of midfield alongside former Rangers man Gennaro Gattuso. Their battle in that area with Roy Keane and possibly Paul Scholes will be pivotal to the game’s outcome. Establishing dominance in that department will be vital, as it will give the Cristiano Ronaldo’s and the Kaka’s of this world more freedom to work their magic in attack, and feed their respective star-studded forward lines.
The two teams have met twice before in two-legged affairs in Europe’s big show, both at the semi final stage, and on both occasions Milan came out on top eventually. However, each side won at home on each occasion, with United coming out on top 2-1 at Old Trafford in 1958, and 1-0 in 1969. Manchester United’s only defeat on home soil against Italian opposition in European competition came in 1996 when Juventus won 1-0. In addition, Milan have never won on English soil, losing on seven out of nine visits with two draws. Their last appearance in England was in 2000 when they lost out 1-0 to Leeds United.
Milan also have the edge in terms of history, having picked up six European titles to Manchester United’s two. The last of Milan's triumphs came ironically at Old Trafford in 2003 when they saw off Juventus in a penalty shoot-out after a dour goal-less draw. United’s last victory ranks amongst the most famous in the competition’s history, as they came back from the dead to score two late goals against Bayern Munich in the 1999 final in Barcelona.
The hero of that night, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a long term absentee, and United will also have Darren Fletcher ruled out. John O'Shea is a doubt too, and faces a late fitness test.
Verdict; Milan to miss the presence of Shevchenko, Ruud to play some part, and United to win 1-0 despite a skilful and resolute Milan rearguard.