Celebrity v reality
It was hard to know the greatest victim of the night when the map of European football power was rather more than singed by the flames licking Real Madrid and Milan. No, it probably wasn't David Beckham milking once again his genius for injecting celebrity fantasy into a career that, in truth, rarely rose above the second rank.
However, there was something weirdly, even climactically, symbolic about the way his profile could so easily be linked with the differing fortunes, and priorities, of three of Europe's most famous clubs.
Beckham, naturally, was received warmly at Old Trafford and, given his forlorn status on the bench of ramshackle Milan, it was even by his standards a stupendous achievement to finish up on some front pages despite being so utterly overshadowed by the talent and momentum of Wayne Rooney.
But then this is the story of the second half of Beckham's career, when fame has outstretched, by such an outlandish margin, anything resembling enduring achievement.
It meant that when you saw the depths to which Milan had sunk, and then heard the news from the Bernabeu, where Real Madrid's 'galacticos' policy was once again in ruins, Beckham had to be included in any analysis of why Manchester United, for all the horrors of their ownership, remain on course while two great clubs with a combined total 16 European Cup wins, had failed so miserably.
Beckham has many admirable qualities and throughout his career has displayed enviable skills. Yet this still doesn't carry us beyond the fact that, in many ways, his value, while never insignificant, has been grossly and damagingly over-stated. Alex Ferguson recognised the inherent dangers of this, and he made himself, for a while at least, a pariah through much of Manchester and beyond when he decided that the Beckham circus at Old Trafford had to be closed.
Who gained most from the decision? Was it United, who quickly drew a close on the era of Beckham worship at Old Trafford with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, and now rejoice in the world-class credentials, and singular passion for the game, of Rooney?
Or was it Real, ever more deeply mired in the belief that it is wise to throw vast amounts of money at stars who will bring, along with rocketing shirt sales, the guarantee of success?
Beckham's brief role at Milan has always been marginal and, you have to believe, created more by celebrity and commercial status than evidence of the kind of vital contribution that another declining veteran, Clarence Seedorf, has produced from time to time.
Yet in the wake of Kaka's move to Madrid, why were Milan -- who last week were cited along with Real, United and Chelsea as one of the four great clubs of world football by Old Trafford chief executive David Gill in a propaganda offensive against the Red Knights takeover group -- dallying with a Beckham when their need was so obviously to provide vital, fresh support for their increasingly isolated Brazilian prodigy Alexandre Pato?
Beckham was another batch of old, lionised blood at a time when an entirely different kind of transfusion was required. So, again, why? Because their owner and "decision-maker", to quote Gill, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, was slipping into the trap that this week again brought down its jaws on his Real counterpart, construction billionaire Florentino Perez.
It is the hazard of believing in the quick-fix potential of big-name, big-cost signings that was so gruesomely celebrated at the Bernabeu before a ball was kicked this season.
It appears that the euro dropped with shuddering force in the wake of Real's expulsion from the Champions League by Lyon. One leading Madrid columnist, armed with a vision not universally apparent when the great stadium was filled to greet Ronaldo's arrival, boomed: "You don't buy titles, you win them when the ball is in play. The field is not a stock market."
Similar views were being expressed in Milan, one banner headline declaring: "Milan taught a lesson by Rooney." More relevantly, that should have been by Ferguson, who continues to seed his team with the force of character, laid down in his regime by the likes of Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs and now exemplified by the ferociously committed Rooney.
Milan's chief executive Adriano Galliani has poked his head above the parapet to concede: "I feel a little ashamed." Galliani is ashamed of what, precisely? Perhaps it really is some responsibility for the denuding of the map of European football, one that sees Madrid again turning in on itself with a rage apparently uninformed by the scale of the separation from its own great tradition.
No, of course, we cannot blame Beckham for the shredding of the reputations of the two most successful European clubs. He hasn't stripped down the old structure of power achieved by the highest standards of team building, of building one success upon another. But perhaps some of the values that have so inflated his reputation, created among his admirers with an appetite for adulation which continues to stretch beyond all reason, are at the root of today's imbalance in the distribution of European football power.
Certainly it is true that the teams who have prospered most dramatically this week, United and Arsenal, both have managers of unshakeable belief in their duty to build teams faithful to their own traditions. Of the other likely Champions League winners, Chelsea still benefit from the ferocious sense of team created by Jose Mourinho and Barcelona are, well, Barcelona, a club light years away from the self-destructive indulgences of Madrid and Milan.
This, surely, brings comfort to those who enjoyed the old map of European football and its statement of a wider, deeper challenge to any who dreamed of being champion. At least no one can say that the art of winning, in the best possible style, has been forgotten. As the man with the flaming computer in Madrid said, it's not splashing around inordinate amounts of money. It's remembering how to make a team, a real one with a precious capacity to grow.