'Extraordinary' Beckham sends Milan into raptures

Versatile performance has Leonardo purring and brings World Cup place step closer
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The master of reinvention is at it again. David Beckham made his second debut for Milan on Wednesday night and in the course of 75 minutes helped the Rossoneri to their biggest win of the season. There is perhaps no place that appreciates the ageing footballer quite like San Siro, but the 34-year-old – a spring chicken compared to the likes of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta – only furthered the affection in which he is already held in the red corner of the city with a performance notable not only for its effectiveness but also its adaptability.

It impressed his coach, Leonardo, who at short notice had asked Beckham to take on an attacking role following the withdrawal through injury of the young Brazilian striker Pato. After Andrea Pirlo, another venerable playmaker, was injured in the second half, Beckham dropped back into central midfield where he continued to prove a telling creative presence. When Leonardo decided he had done enough, there was warm applause as he headed for the bench and up in the stands Fabio Capello can only have had his well-publicised faith in the player reinforced.

Versatility has not been an obvious part of the Beckham game, but when it comes to earning places in World Cup squads it is an envious, and timely, asset to discover.

"David has been training a bit in every position this week because we had a few uncertainties with small injuries, like Pato [forward], Seedorf [midfield], Zambrotta [defence] and Pirlo [midfield]," said Leonardo. "David tried every single role and I think this is what he is all about. He is absolutely open to anything and has extraordinary quality and an enormous tactical intelligence. He is going to help us a great deal."

There are much greater tests than a home game against a modest Genoa side, who were beaten 5-2, to come – a trip to third-placed Juventus on Sunday for a start. Two weeks after that comes the Derby della Madonnina against Internazionale, who lead their city rivals by eight points having played a game more. And then there is the Champions League: the home tie against Manchester United on 16 February followed by the return to the "special place", as Beckham calls it, three weeks later. Given the stardust that Beckham seems to have resumed sprinkling across the globe, what price him turning up in South Africa this summer with a Scudetto and another European Cup to his name?

It was on his return to Los Angeles in July after his last spell in Milan that he was jeered and abused by Galaxy fans. His stay in the US appeared to be on its last legs. "It has," announced Sports Illustrated, "been an epic disaster."

But from that low point, Beckham has conjured a characteristic turnaround in his fortunes that, while not quite of the epic extent, would certainly meet with approval in Hollywood. Galaxy reached the MLS final, where Beckham played on to the bitter end of their defeat on penalties despite an ankle injury that required three pain-killing injections. Then he arrived in South Africa to haul England's struggling World Cup 2018 bid out of the mire, that careful smile sending Fifa's finest into a collective swoon. Likewise in Milan it is difficult to find anyone with a word to say against him.

"He had offers, big offers from several clubs including England," said Adriano Galliani, the club's vice president. "He came here because he enjoys playing for the side. He earns a lot less than he did at LA Galaxy. He just has an affection for the club."

It was an affection garnered last season during 18 Serie A appearances. Under Carlo Ancelotti that was largely as part of the now Chelsea manager's 4-4-2 set up. Under Leonardo the preferred line-up is 4-3-3, which does not offer an obvious role for Beckham when all the Brazilian's first-choice players are fit.

Reinvention then is a necessity, especially if the coveted return to South Africa is to happen. "I was happy with the game and it's great to be back," said Beckham. "But it's just one game."