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Rooney turns tie on its head

There have been times when it has riled Alex Ferguson to see Wayne Rooney receive the kind of adulation and hysteria that turned David Beckham into a national treasure, but when a player has turned a chastening evening at San Siro into one of celebration for his team, you get the impression that the Manchester United manager might, for once, be the one leading the plaudits.

This was a truly remarkable game. Remarkable in that United were so comprehensively outclassed for long periods, having conceded a third-minute goal to Ronaldinho, and yet somehow came away with a scoreline that resonates as powerfully as any in their long and illustrious history in European football.

Remarkable in that this ended up being a night to live long in United supporters' memories, rather than one that, like most of their trips to Milan, they were eager to forget.

At 24, Rooney has finally become a player who has the ability to impose his will on a game. A fluke goal from Paul Scholes had brought Ferguson's team level, but from then on it was all Rooney, leading the United charge and scoring the two goals -- both of them headers -- that transformed this tie beyond all recognition.

Clarence Seedorf, Beckham's replacement, scored a wonderful late goal for AC Milan, after which Michael Carrick was sent off for a second bookable offence that only the referee seemed to see, but United have one foot in the quarter-finals.

Ferguson had made huge play of Milan's experience in the build-up to the game, as if the gulf between the teams in that respect was still as great as it had been in 2005, when United were comprehensively beaten by a line-up that included Cafu, Jaap Stam, Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf and Hernan Crespo.


United are hardly short of experience themselves these days, with Edwin van der Sar and Scholes starting the game, but Ryan Giggs was missing through injury and Gary Neville was left out for Rafael Da Silva at right back.

In many ways, the selection of Rafael was the most significant made by either manager. If experience was so vital, Ferguson could have gone with Neville or Wes Brown at right back, rather than a 19-year-old with only five Champions League appearances behind him.

The challenge of marking Ronaldinho was always going to be a big one for the teenager and with Nemanja Vidic back in Manchester, it meant that United had Rafael and Jonny Evans, rather than Neville and Brown, alongside Patrice Evra and a rusty Rio Ferdinand in defence.

Did that inexperience play into Milan's hands? It is hard to say, because the problems in the opening minutes seemed to emanate from Evra. The full-back's first contribution was inauspicious, because he was tackled by Alexandre Pato with barely 10 seconds on the clock, and his travails continued when he was guilty of a mistimed challenge on the same player. From the resulting free-kick, Beckham swung the ball in, Evra tried to clear the danger with an overhead kick and Ronaldinho struck a volley that took a deflection off Carrick and ended up in the net. It was a dreadful start for United, who should be grateful that they were not farther behind by the time they gained a modicum of composure towards the end of the first half.

Pato was running riot, Carrick and Scholes were conceding possession in dangerous areas and Rooney was terribly isolated in attack. With Fletcher mysteriously shunted to outside left and Park Ji Sung disappearing into the hole behind Rooney, United were looking shambolic.

How it came to half-time with the scores level at 1-1 is a mystery. Milan had threatened through Luca Antonini -- the full back linking up superbly with Thiago Silva in open play -- Pato and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but they could not find the second goal.


Ferdinand was uncomfortable when stretched by Huntelaar, in the air or on the ground, and the Holland forward should have doubled Milan's lead when, after another aberration from Scholes, he was sent clear of the defence by Massimo Ambrosini.

The sense of injustice among Milan's supporters increased with every replay of United's equalising goal on the big screen at half-time. The build-up was impressive enough, as Fletcher suddenly popped up with an overlapping run on the right wing, but as Scholes attempted to meet his team-mate's cross with a volley, he missed the ball, which bounced off the knee of his standing leg and trickled beyond the despairing dive of the perennially unconvincing Dida into the net.

The goal shook United out of the worst of their lethargy, but they remained second-best.

Rooney was booked for dissent, but far more troubling was the way that Milan -- and in particular Andrea Pirlo, which did not say much for the success of Park's man-marking skills -- continued to dictate the game in the second half.

Within six minutes of the restart, Pato had missed the target with a free header from Giuseppe Favalli's cross and Van der Sar had been forced into a difficult save from Pirlo's thunderous 30-yard free kick.


The introduction of Antonio Valencia in place of the disappointing Nani was designed to provide some muchneeded penetration, but even Ferguson could not have imagined that, within two minutes of coming on, the Ecuador winger would have sprinted past Favalli and crossed to the far post, where Rooney beat Dida with a looping header to give United the lead.

Eight minutes later, Fletcher crossed from the left and Rooney, darting beyond the offside trap, beat Dida with another header. There was still time for Seedorf, on in place of Beckham, to reduce the arrears with an impudent flick from Ronaldinho's equally outrageous cross, and for Carrick to be shown the red card in stoppage time. On another night, that would have been a talking point. As it was, that -- like the Beckham reunion -- was a footnote to another remarkable night in the life of Wayne Rooney.

By the end, United supporters could afford to serenade Beckham as much as they liked.

Their old flame had flickered at times in the first half, as had Ronaldinho, but, in Rooney, United have a light that never goes out.