Classic European nights. When we complain about the stifling dominance of the Big Four; when we curse every transfer that sends a promising young player from a lesser club to the Big Four; when we ponder proposals such as debt-to-revenue restrictions, foreign player quotas, and playoffs for European places; when we talk about all these things, we are talking about the promise of classic European nights like Tuesday night at a raucous and roaring San Siro. Some observations:
- For those, like me, who have not followed Serie A this season, rumors of Ronaldinho’s reemergence proved true as his side-steps, dummys and darting runs gave Man United no end of trouble in the first half. Nineteen-year old Rafael will have much to ponder before the second leg should he get the chance to start again.
- Not a news flash, but the match gave further proof that Manchester United’s defense is in shambles. Poor communication, poor tackling, poor clearances, poor marking, poor closing, Man United was guilty of it all. Nemanja Vidic’s absence was glaring. Patrice Evra looked like he had been shot in the back as he attempted to clear Goldenballs’ free kick; which produced Ronaldinho’s goal. Last season, defense was Man United’s greatest strength during their dominating run to the Champions League final. In the first half last night, Milan played like a young Colin Farrell, penetrating at will. Man United were quite lucky to only be down by one before Paul Scholes’ fluky equalizer in the 36th.
- Man United’s defence may have been awful, but Rio Ferdinand showed he may be on the road to recovery with his stoppage of a rampaging Ronaldinho in the 19th minute. Caught one-on-one, Rio got all of the ball as Ronaldinho tripped to the ground a moment later. Ronaldinho knew he was beat fairly as he only gave a half-hearted shout for a foul.
- Nani, Nani, Nani. No, no, no. It got so bad that his own mates were chewing him out, most notably a visibly disgusted Wayne Rooney. Nani’s “crosses” don’t deserve the term. They were more like releasing hummingbirds into the wind. Or balloons let go by giddy children on a breezy spring day. His “crosses” are perhaps easier understood as tributes to Norman Foster’s Wembley arch.
- Rooney had so much space as he headed his second goal, even Nani could have bagged it. Daniele Bonera and Alessandro Nesta played that sequence like they were statues better suited for display in Milan’s Castello Sforzesco museum.
- Man United’s change kit of a plain white shirt accented by random stripes paired with blue shorts and white socks is a bore. The chevron that goes across the chest of both their red and blue shirts is striking and oddly absent from this white shirt. I’m of the belief that Manchester United’s change shirt for European games should be blue whenever possible, in honor of 1968.
- The tale of the tape for the managers entering the game favored Sir Alex Ferguson’s 36 years of experience against Leonardo’s nine months. Man United weathered the early storm well. Substitutions had real impact. Antonio Valencia came on for an inept Nani in the 64th. Within 2 minutes he lofted a perfect cross for Rooney to head home. Big bossman Clarence Seedorf came on in the 72nd for a largely invisible David Beckham. Seedorf’s audacious and stupendous back-heeled goal in the 85th gave a new intensity to the game’s final minutes and gives Milan hope for the second leg at Old Trafford.
- The second leg at Old Trafford is not until March 10th. This new gap between legs, implemented this season for the first time, allows us to watch more of the games in this first knockout round. Man United won the first leg, but Milan definitely have the firepower to answer the challenge. With both Milan and Manchester United displaying such ineptitude on defence, it should be another scorcher.