Rooney soars to put United on front foot
Striker's brilliant brace leaves Red Devils in the ascendancy after pulsating San Siro clash
MANCHESTER UNITED waited 52 years to score against AC Milan at San Siro and then, like the local trams, three come along in quick succession.
If Paul Scholes' goal was cloaked in good fortune, Wayne Rooney's two second-half headers were absolutely majestic. David Beckham was saluted warmly by the United faithful but what last night confirmed was that he is now a sideshow in the great drama scripted by Rooney. The England striker was quiet in the first half but utterly irresistible after the break.
The one downside was the red card for Michael Carrick, dismissed for two bookable offences, the first a foul on Ronaldinho, the second for kicking the ball away, in front of the watching England manager.
Up in the smart seats, Fabio Capello certainly had enough to occupy his attention, from Beckham to Rooney, the armband-wearing Rio Ferdinand to Carrick, and doubtless a wistful glance at Scholes, the shy, retired type. But it was an old England nemesis, Ronaldinho, who was first to show as the Italians began by far the stronger. Until Scholes' goal, United were too unfocused, too sluggish in their tempo.
Milan fans in the Curva Sud had unveiled a banner the width of the pitch, '110 years of history, fighting for glory', and they certainly enjoyed a glorious start, taking the lead after three minutes through Ronaldinho's deflected strike. It was utterly avoidable, commencing with Patrice Evra's stupid challenge on the lively Pato, gifting Beckham an inviting free-kick stage on the right.
The former England captain's delivery was surprisingly poor but so was Evra's interception, hooking it on to Ronaldinho. Again demonstrating his ability to punish an English defence, the Brazilian sent a volley flying goalwards, the ball catching Carrick and wrong-footing Edwin van der Sar.
As a party broke out in the tribunes, Ronaldinho's clicked-heels celebration in mid-air indicated he had been watching Dick van Dyke on the rooftops in 'Mary Poppins'.
Ronaldinho was magnificent in the early stages, juggling the ball and conjuring up memories of his effervescent days with Brazil and Barcelona.
Some of his flicks to spirit the ball away from United's initially bemused right-back, Rafael, were breathtaking.
Ferguson had gone for pace and energetic legs, hoping that Rafael would force Ronaldinho deep. No chance. Not early on anyway. Milan's No 80 was a constant threat until Scholes dragged United back into contention.
Until then, Milan did to United in midfield what Ferguson's men had done to Arsenal, pressing hard and fast.
Beckham moved between right and centre, threading some neat passes through to Pato, while also assisting Andrea Pirlo in the middle.
The Italian playmaker appeared to be marked by Ji-sung Park but the South Korean was not attentive enough. Park's role was confused, a symptom of United's midfield malaise for half an hour.
United kept surrendering possession, Scholes a notable culprit with a ball straight to Ronaldinho and only Ferdinand's pace and precision in the tackle rescued the situation. The Milan tifosi screamed for a penalty but it was a good tackle by Ferdinand, and a correct decision by Olegario Benquerenca to wave Ronaldinho dismissively away.
Milan came again, Luca Antonini shooting wide. Ronaldinho, presented with the ball, again menaced. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar saw his shot cannon just wide off Evra.
But United stood firm, kept their nerve, and began putting together some passing moves. Gradually, Milan were forced on the back foot, particularly in the 37th minute when United struck with the sweetest of build-ups and most fortunate of finishes.
Carrick started the move, switching play with a fine pass to Park, who darted down the inside-right channel. Pausing for Fletcher to overlap, Park laid the ball into the path of the Scot. Fletcher had spotted Scholes and picked him out beautifully. Scholes swung his right foot but missed. The ball carried on, catching Scholes' left shin and dribbling almost apologetically past Dida.
The force now appeared to be with the English side, their speed and tempo alarming Milan, who sat increasingly deep. Yet the Italians still threatened on occasion, Ronaldinho weaving between Evra and Scholes before bringing a vital save from the excellent Van der Sar.
Beckham then swept a free-kick well over, prompting Pirlo to take responsibility for a dead-ball early in the second half, demanding an outstanding save from Van der Sar.
United fans had certainly not been daunted by the occasion, taunting the Milan fans with chants of "Jose Mourinho'', Inter's coach. United were enjoying increasing amounts of possession but for 66 minutes their problem lay in finding or releasing Rooney, playing the lone strike's role in Ferguson's 4-5-1 formation.
The England striker worked with typical industry and was eventually rewarded midway through the second period.
Ferguson had just made what proved an inspired substitution, sending on Valencia for Nani, and the newcomer immediately lifted over a cross from the right. Rising above Daniele Bonera, Rooney planted a firm header back across Dida and in.
United were dominant, their bright ideas and greater stamina embarrassing the ageing Milan. Just after United fans had paid a warm tribute as their former No 7 was withdrawn, Rooney struck again. When Fletcher checked, then crossed, the unmarked Rooney headed firmly past Dida.
Milan's ageing aristocrats had one trick left, a majestic one, and it came from Beckham's replacement. When Ronaldinho crossed from the left, Clarence Seedorf scored with a wonderful back-heel. (© Daily Telegraph, London)