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Ferguson: 'Beating Milan is a step forward'

Milan and Manchester are similar cities: northern, industrial, defiantly at odds with their capitals and possessed of an unmistakable style.

Milan are a club Manchester United have long tried to match but until now have never quite overtaken. They were the men that, in the wake of the Munich disaster, crushed any romantic thoughts that Matt Busby's wrecked team might reach a European Cup final. United, however, might have done better had the Football Association allowed Bobby Charlton to play in the second leg of the 1958 semi-final, rather than call him up for a Home International. Eleven years later, in another European Cup semi-final, Milan effectively brought the Busby years to an end with a display of grim defence that defied the combined talents of Best, Law and Charlton.

Twice they have overcome Sir Alex Ferguson's teams. In 2005 they managed it without breaking sweat and in a third semi-final, two years later, not even a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford was sufficient protection against a perfect storm unleashed at San Siro.

"That is why it was a big thing for us to win the first leg in Milan," Ferguson said yesterday. "I was delighted with it because, historically, we were playing against one of the best European teams of all time.

"Without doubt, it was a landmark victory for us. I can't help thinking it was a really, really important night for us in terms of our development. It was a psychological thing for us to go there and win."

Ferguson famously said his greatest achievement at Old Trafford was "knocking Liverpool off their perch". But overhauling Milan, who were winning back-to-back European Cups in 1989-90 while Ferguson was reacting to losing the Manchester derby by putting his head under a pillow, would count as a similar mountain climbed, although it has taken longer. "Having watched the Milan derby, there is a sense that [Italian] football is better now," he said. "That's why beating Milan would be such a step forward."

His opposite number, Leonardo (below), said that the first leg "could have gone a thousand ways". Because of Wayne Rooney, it went United's and it is hard to think of reasons for Milanese confidence, other than historical superiority. When asked what he would do were he in Leonardo's position, a smile played on Ferguson's lips. He knows United have never thrown away a first-leg victory when the second leg has been at Old Trafford, not even to Milan.