The major story line leading into matchday 1 of the Round of 16 of the Champions League was two players facing off against their old teams. Karim Benzema against Lyon, and David Beckham against Manchester United. While Benzema made his move only months ago, Beckham has been gone from Manchester since the ’02/’03 season. His travels to Real Madrid, then to Los Angeles, and onto Milan have seen him pick up silverware only once, with Madrid winning La Liga on the last day of the ’06/’07 season. Beckham’s pregame announcement that he would not celebrate if he scored struck me as odd. Why assume you will score? Why wouldn’t he be fully committed to his current side?
The game started quickly with Ronaldinho showing his flash and 10 dollar smile after scoring off a deflected clearance in the 3rd minute. The Manchester back line looked quite shaky early with Nemanja Vidic out for Johnny Evans, and Rio Ferdinand playing his first game in nearly three weeks. Milan kept the pressure on after scoring first, and could have easily led by two or three goals, but for Edwin Van Der Sar. The Dutchman’s exemplary play early on served to settle Red Devil nerves.
To me, the first half had three major themes. First, Nani wasting cross after cross, either sending them directly at Dida, or shockingly wide. Second, Beckham was largely absent from the first half, never doing anything dangerous. Third, if Beckham was “largely” absent, was Pirlo “utterly” absent? “Completely” absent? “Altogether” absent? “Fully” absent? I am not sure he had a touch in the first half.
Ronaldinho earned, but was not given, a foul just outside the Manchester box in the 18th minute. Scholes’ bad giveaway led to Rio bringing Ronaldinho down and the referee somehow not awarding at least a foul, if not a yellow card.
After the Ronaldinho non-call, United seemed to take over. Wayne Rooney began to show why he’s certainly a finalist for the Ballon d’Or. His workrate is endless.
Huntelaar had a wonderful chance from the top of the penalty area, but directed it wide. Shortly thereafter, Scholes scored on what is likely his flukiest goal. Fletcher had a nice cross that Paul absolutely whiffed on, but the ball struck Scholes’ plant foot and eked just past Dida at the far post.
For all of the back and forth of the first half, the fans of the rossoneri were louder than I think I have ever heard Italian fans. Forgive me if I’m incorrect on this, but every FSC Serie A telecast makes it seem like the teams have been forced to play behind closed doors because of fan misbehavior.
It took 52 minutes, but Pirlo finally got to touch the ball after a foul in the attacking half. He didn’t waste his opportunity, sending a beautiful ball that Van Der Sar had to labor to save. Pirlo soon sent a nice pass towards Pato just inside the box that the young Brazilian just missed.
Nani was mercifully substituted for Valencia in the 64th minute, and it only took 2 minutes for the Ecuadoran to make his mark. He sent an excellent cross to Rooney who deftly headed it over Dida, and into the top corner for Manchester’s second goal. It is hard to wonder how many more goals Manchester might have had by now if Valencia had been delivering crosses, and not Nani.
Darren Fletcher, again, with a nice pass, this time to Rooney, who heads it in just outside the 6 yard box. Rooney was right between the two Milan Center backs. Neither made a move to mark him. Do the Rossoneri miss Gooch?
Clarence Seedorf, who came on for Beckham in the 72nd minute, has had a lot more of the ball than Beckham did during his mostly useless time on the pitch. Pipo Inzaghi subbed in for Huntelaar in the 77th, and while Milan look old, they also are looking as dangerous as they have in this game.
Minutes after Ronaldinho attempted a bicycle kick in the box, he fed Seedorf for a cheeky back/side heel past Van Der Sar, to pull Milan within one. The crowd is alive again, and so are are the players. Ronaldinho had another dangerous cross, but Inzaghi could only hit it wide.
The 3-2 final score should set up an interesting second leg at Old Trafford, as Milan need to score at least two goals to advance. They will have to take advantage of their opportunities better to hope to move on.