Beckham's return reduced to sideshow as OldTrafford rocks to Wayne's world
IT was the kind of delivery that used to send Old Trafford into purring rapture. The precision of the timing, the certainty of the execution, the way the right foot wrapped itself round the ball, sending it spinning in a juicy, inviting parabola on to the forehead of the United centre forward, who, smiling even as it came his way, headed it past the goalkeeper.
How the green and gold hordes had missed it. How they relished the brilliance of such crossing. Yes, it was good to see Gary Neville back doing what he does best.
This was not, then, David Beckham's night. For once his scriptwriter had taken time off, for once the main attraction was left in the wings, bereft of lines. For once it was not about him.
The memories came from others. Not only was he marooned for the entire business end of the match on the Milan bench, but out on the pitch he was being royally upstaged by those who in the past had been his supporting cast. Even Neville, his former best man, was suddenly besting the main attraction.
Not that Neville could do it twice, mind. About 10 minutes after his cross had landed on the brow of Wayne Rooney, the latter-day Nat Lofthouse, the venerable United skipper once more found himself in space on the right. Once more he addressed the ball, once more he wrapped his foot around it. And this time he sent it ballooning over Christian Abbiati's goal.
He might not have been able to replicate his old mate's metronomic service, but Neville's presence on the pitch merely added poignancy to Beckham's absence. The former United wingman is generally regarded as having reached the end of his useful service, a player reckoned too old for a starting position, even at a club that values experience above all.
He started on a bench which redefined the term vintage: between them Beckham and his five substitute mates had totted up more than 200 years.
Yet out there, in United red, still enjoying their manager's trust, were his class of '92 team-mates, Neville and Paul Scholes. In other circumstances, if he had made different choices, trodden a different path, maybe if he had a different wife, he could have been here. In the Stretford End they insisted he could still do a job for the team.
"Fergie sign him up," they chanted -- though without the conviction they put into their anti-Glazer songs later in the game.
It had been a long time since Beckham had last been at his spiritual home for a club game. Here is how long ago it was: Cristiano Ronaldo has been and gone in the time since he was last here. These days Neville and Antonio Valencia have taken his turf, Darren Fletcher and Ji-Sung Park replicate his work rate, Rooney scores his goals. But still, nobody has matched his ability to work a crowd.
He arrived, the old trouper, after everyone else, wandering out of the tunnel after the rest had already lined up. Thus, he had the walk along the touchline to himself, milking the crowd's welcome, smiling for the cameras, waving to his mum and sister, back in their old spot in the directors' box.
And that was the last we saw of him. At least while there was life in the game. A standing ovation, delivered with all the warm magnanimity that comes with easy victory, was his valediction when he came on as substitute in the 64th minute, long, long after he could affect things, long long after Milan had been humiliated.
A sweet strike from 25 yards that Edwin van der Sar tipped away for a corner was his swansong, the last contribution, in all probability, his former worshippers will see from him in the stadium he once made his own.
And his short, insignificant cameo was made all the more pointed by the fact almost as he arrived, Rooney trotted off, his job done, his strength and potency needed for future challenges.
Without question, these days Rooney is the man who makes the difference, so worshipped that DNA testing could probably reveal him to be a love child of Malcolm Glazer and still the adoration would pour from the stands.
In this match once more, as so many times this golden season, he was magnificent, his touch and muscularity way too much for a backline oddly deferential by Italian standards.
So, the crown was passed on. Who needs David Beckham when you have Wayne Rooney, the new king of Old Trafford? (© Daily Telegraph, London)