Pato 'the Duck' can catch Red Devils flat-footed
In appreciating why tonight's greatest threat to Manchester United comes from 'the Duck', it must first be understood that Alexandre Pato, the bearer of that peculiar moniker, is about the least flat-footed player on the planet.
The Brazilian also does not, according to most primary evidence, sport any feathers. Nor does he make quacking noises. Nor does he possess even the slightest semblance of a beak.
Pato's identification with our aquatic friends stems purely from his name's translation from his native Portuguese. It was a name chorused with great gusto by 40,000 Milan fans at the San Siro last Friday night, when he picked up the ball on the halfway line, dissected a hapless Udinese defence with the feints of his feet, and rounded the goalkeeper with a composure to induce a collective gasp. "Mama mia," one supporter behind the press box cried.
It was the signing of Ronaldinho, Pato's similarly flamboyant team-mate on the opposite side of attack, that Milan hoped would elicit such reactions, but 'the Duck' has been inspiring rapture since the moment he flew the nest.
Why, Pato has already broken two records established by Pele. He was just 17 when he became the youngest scorer in an official FIFA competition -- just for good measure, the event was the Club World Cup, which his then team, Porto Alegre's Internacional, went on to win.
That precocity has extended to the international stage, too, as when he scored within minutes of his Brazil debut at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. It is fair to conclude that a confrontation with United for a place in the Champions League quarter-finals is the type of auspicious occasion Pato has been reared for.
"It will be special because it is followed by everyone," he said. "At 20 years of age, having the opportunity to play a clash like this one fascinates me. Arriving at Milan aged 18, continuing to be at the club and going on the pitch next to great champions like Ronaldinho and David Beckham ... for me it's a dream come true."
Beckham might take that as faint praise, given that Pato is the man by whom he is most frequently usurped in Milan's starting XI.
Even for Leonardo, the coach who has not stinted in his glowing backing of Beckham, the comparison between the prodigious gifts of a Brazilian starlet and the fading force of a 34-year-old midfielder is not one he has to dwell too long over. The challenge tonight will be to design a system fit for both of them.
The adventurous tactics favoured by Leonardo are proving perfect for Pato -- stationed on the right of a three-pronged attack, he can indulge an array of touches and tricks to rival Barcelona's Lionel Messi, who sets the gold standard in his position.
He has even taken to wearing bright yellow boots in a pointed reminder to his markers -- now you see me, now you don't.
One question mark hovers over his fitness. Pato has recently returned from intensive physiotherapy for a muscle injury, although such travails pale against the ordeal he endured in childhood.
When he broke an arm in two places aged 11, doctors diagnosed a tumour that would, if left untreated, turn cancerous within two months. His family could not afford the surgery, but a friend, a wealthy specialist, operated for free.
Such happy twists of fate have taken Pato from a modest background on the banks of the Rio Grande to the luxuries that are the entitlement of any player at Milan, among the most lavishly resourced clubs on earth.
If Milan are seeking more propitious fortune tonight, they might hope for rain. It is good weather for ducks. (© Daily Telegraph, London)