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Ferguson spies chance in the shadow of Kaka

United manager believes Milan test will be easier this time

What used to be the plain old European Cup, glorious as it was, is about to enter another new era of hype and lucre as, for the first time, the first knockout round of the Champions' League is stretched out over four long weeks; more precisely, over eight nights of TV. So how delighted Uefa must be that for the opening night of this extravaganza on Tuesday, rights-holders are able to offer a contest not only echoing back down the years to black-and-white days but featuring the most modern of heroes – if he can get a game.

Milan against Manchester United is a fixture more than half a century old and of poignantly historic significance: after United's team of Busby Babes were decimated on the way home from their quarter-final success against Red Star Belgrade in February 1958, it was Milan they were drawn to meet in the last four. The tie would not take place for another three months and United's makeshift side somehow won the first leg 2-1, only to go down 4-0 in the San Siro.

Those to whom football history is bunk will be more attracted by the presence in the Milan squad of one David Robert Joseph Beckham, whose 81 Champions' League games for United were the springboard to becoming the first British player to reach three figures in that competition. Now, for the second year running, he is donning the red-and-black stripes of Milan. After a triumphant return last month, starring in the 5-2 win over Genoa, he and the Rossoneri have found things more difficult. Sir Alex Ferguson travelled over to watch the Milan derby, in which Internazionale were worthy winners even after finishing with nine men.

Ferguson was back on Friday night to see a laboured 3-2 victory over Udinese, in which Beckham was allowed only the last 15 minutes as a substitute. When the right-sided attacker Amantino Mancini, who is ineligible for European competition, had to come off in the first half it was significantly the young Brazilian Pato who replaced him, justifying his arrival ahead of Beckham by immediately scoring.

Ronaldinho must have ensured his place against United by creating all three goals, and it was only when he came off that there was a chance for the former United hero, who almost gave a goal away and then committed one dreadful tackle in his frustration that deserved a yellow card.

United's 3-0 defeat by Milan in the semi-finals three years ago was one of the more bitter disappointments of Ferguson's long reign. He ascribes it, in part, to playing a crucial League game at Everton in between the two legs. Now, by virtue of having been knocked out of the FA Cup, his side have enjoyed a much longer preparation than usual – and than Milan: "Six days to prepare is a godsend for us," Ferguson said. "These countries, they help their teams in Europe, with us it doesn't apply. Three years ago they dominated the game and I know that won't happen again. We will have a totally different approach to the game this time, helped by the fact that we are not playing at the weekend.

"We have given the ones that played at Villa [last Wednesday] a two-day rest. Sunday we will be doing a lot of tactical work and we fly out on Monday, so hopefully by Tuesday we will know we have done the right thing. They played this weekend, they've lost Kaka and have a few injuries, whereas we aren't playing this weekend and we have had a good rest. It's a good time for us to be going to Milan."

Kaka, he believes, has been a big loss since his move to Real Madrid, who play Lyon on Tuesday. "They miss him enormously. They still have experienced, clever players like Pirlo and Ambrosini and Seedorf, who has won four European Cups with three different teams, so that's a fantastic experience. Nesta, if he's fit, has a lot of experience too but it's Pato who they are desperate to get back in.

"They used Kaka at the head of a diamond [behind] two front players but they have changed that and gone 4-3-3, with two wide players and three centre-midfield players. You have to recognise they are not short of skill and experience. Ronaldinho, Pato, all these players have skill, but we have got the players who can win the match."

And the man he famously kicked a stray boot at in the Old Trafford dressing-room after Beckham swore at him? "We know all about David, he's a great crosser of the ball so we will have to be alive to that. He's got great experience and there's no one better at delivering the ball from set-pieces around about the penalty box than David Beckham.

"I think he will get a good reception [at the second leg] and he deserves it. All great players that served us well have always got good receptions."

As for the composition of his own team, Ferguson does admit that he has been forced to rethink following the loss of Ryan Giggs with a broken arm. The consolation, he says, is the form of others, especially in attack. "My players are used to big occasions and I think the good thing for us now is that we have hit form at just the right time. We will miss Giggsy, but we have players in great form and working really well.

"The improvement you see in players like Rooney, Nani and Valencia, who has done a great job for us since coming here, is fantastic and we have Fletcher and Carrick playing out of their skins. Scholes is playing well too. I have players who are playing well at the right time." He will need them.

This week's European ties

Champions' League: Tuesday

Milan v Manchester United

Milan's excellent record against United, whom they have beaten in every home game and, overall, every European tie, may be less relevant than their poor home performances in the Champions' League this season. Beaten by FC Zurich, they then drew with Real Madrid and Marseille.


Porto v Arsenal

Benefiting from a rare free weekend before a Champions' League game will only convince Arsène Wenger he is right not to bother too much with the FA Cup. He regards third place in the Premier League as more important than reaching Wembley, but a first European Cup must now be the Holy Grail.

Europa League: Tuesday

Everton v Sporting Lisbon

Preparing for another meeting with Lisbon opposition, Everton claim to have learnt from two games against Benfica in the group stage, which is just as well; they lost 5-0 and 2-0. To be fair, it was a weakened side and Benfica are now top of the league in Portugal with Sporting fourth.


Fulham v Shakhtar Donetsk

Unbeaten at home in their 12 European ties, Fulham will hope to take advantage of a team whose domestic league stopped in mid-December and does not resume for another two weeks. The winter break did not worry Shakhtar last season when they won the Uefa Cup, so they are effectively holders of this competition.

Liverpool v Unirea Urziceni

How the mighty are humbled, after Rafa Benitez's side scored only five goals in their six Champions' League group games to finish in third place. At Arsenal last week Liverpool looked equally impotent, so it's best not to underestimate the little-known Romanian champions, who beat Seville 1-0 and won 4-1 at Ibrox.

Steve Tongue