What David Beckham had sensed all week has come to pass. "It's been seven years and I want it to happen," he said a few days ago. "Me against Manchester United would be beautiful, wouldn't it?'' It means a first club return to Old Trafford on Wednesday 10 March for a player whose life has been defined by his 14 years at the place.
Beckham, who will be nearly two months into his second loan at Milan from LA Galaxy when the meeting comes around, can have some genuine hope of playing too, in what would be his first European match on Stretford soil since the thrilling night of 23 April 2003, when his two second-half goals inside quarter of an hour gave Sir Alex Ferguson brief hope of what would have been a famous quarter-final triumph over Real Madrid. The 4-3 win proved insufficient.
Beckham has returned in an England shirt, of course, but the farewell he bid the stadium on 13 March 2007 after a friendly between United and a Europe XI marking his first club's 50 years of continental football seemed to be a valedictory one.
"United are an amazing team, but we all know they have the best manager in the world at this club," Beckham said on the pitch that night, when a knee injury prevented him from playing.
This, taken with Beckham's public declaration last year that Cristiano Ronaldo would be advised not to be lured away from Old Trafford by Real Madrid, have been part of an attempt to bury the hatchet with Ferguson, but the old elephant doesn't forget.
The manager's greeting was diplomatic but not warm when Beckham popped into San Siro to see his team-mates when United drew Internazionale in last season's first knockout stage and his perspective remains the same as it was when Beckham married in the summer of 1999: football and a showbiz lifestyle don't mix.
The breakdown started barely six months after the wedding when Beckham, by then spending much of his time in the newlyweds' Hertfordshire mansion and rising at 6am to be driven 160 miles to The Cliff training ground, missed a training session ahead of potentially United's biggest game of the year at Leeds, claiming his son Brooklyn was suffering from gastroenteritis. Ferguson, unimpressed that he had been well enough to attend a fashion event in London with his wife a few days earlier, fined him two weeks' wages (£50,000 in those days) and dropped him. "It doesn't matter to me how high a player's profile is. If he is in the wrong he is disciplined," Ferguson said at the time, which pretty much summed up his views on Beckham's celebrity status.
The legendary flying boot in the Highbury dressing room, after United had been beaten 2-0 in an FA Cup fifth round, set the seal on the deteriorating relationship, which ended when Real Madrid paid £25m for Beckham in June 2003.
It's a large consignment of baggage between the two, inevitably making a tie that sees the Premier League champions journey to Milan first, on Tuesday 16 February, all about Beckham. But Ferguson is actually the man under the real spotlight.
History weighs against him. The Rossoneri have won each of their four European encounters with United and for the manager there are the memories of one of the club's worst nights of recent times, the 2007 semi-final when they went down 3-0 in San Siro after he afforded the Italians far too much respect, having won 3-2 in Manchester.
The defeat triggered a 25-match unbeaten run in Europe until last season's final against Barcelona in Rome, a match which Ferguson returned to in his mind yesterday. "I think you're stronger in the sense of the loss of the celebration. That's where you miss out," he said. "The celebrations when you win a European trophy are beyond everything else."
Ferguson went on to say that the hurt "doesn't last long" but in the vivid memories there seemed to be a sense of lingering pain. "The one thing that does resonate strongly is the occasion," Ferguson recalled. "It was a fantastic occasion in Rome, no matter how it ended up. It was a beautiful night, the colours in the stadium were fantastic, the stadium had been revamped. I've been in that stadium before and it was rundown, but it looked fantastic that day. It was a great venue for the final and, similarly, Madrid is a great venue so, hopefully, we'll be there for next year's final."
There can be belief as well as hope. Milan under Leonardo are not what they were with Carlo Ancelotti and Kaka, as the five-point deficit on Jose Mourinho's Internazionale makes clear, and what they possess in experience the Italians lack in a rather predictable and one-paced midfield.
Even though Ronaldo's shadow still falls across Old Trafford, removing those rapier-like counter-attacks which have been the basis of United's European style, United are the favourites. "We've got a chance," Ferguson acknowledged. "You always have to look at the opposition, and it's exactly the same as last season. There aren't any changes, and I don't think there are any great improvements from our opponents anywhere. It's all the same, so we must have a chance."
Predictably, there was no mention of Beckham from Ferguson when he responded to news of the draw yesterday afternoon. Overcoming a prodigal son makes the incentive that little bit greater – but for his old mentor it's just a sideshow.
The last 16 - By Glenn Moore
Internazionale v Chelsea
The attention will be on the dugout but the tie will be won and lost by the players. The worry for Chelsea is that with so much attention on their controversial coach, Internazionale's highly talented squad will finally relax enough to produce in the Champions League the performances their quality warrants. Samuel Eto'o (right), twice a Champions League winner, heads a team which is again running away with Serie A but he is far from the only stellar name. Lucio, Maicon and Julio Cesar are in the current Brazil XI, add Argentine veterans Javier Zanetti, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso, plus Wesley Sneijder and rising star Mario Balotelli, and their poor European form is mystifying. Well beaten by Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United in the last six years. Can Chelsea follow suit?
24 February & 16 March
Milan v Manchester United
Manchester United may still be coming to terms with Cristiano Ronaldo's departure but Milan are a team in transition, much weaker than the one which twice dismantled Ferguson's team in recent years. United have never won, or even scored, against Milan at San Siro but will fancy their chances of at least achieving the latter against a defence which, even after Paolo Maldini's retirement, largely consists of 30-somethings. Midfield and attack are also ageing and while Filippo Inzaghi, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Ronaldinho, like Beckham, are to be respected, the feeling is that Milan are past their best. Alexandre Pato and former United target Klaas-Jan Huntelaar offer a more youthful threat.
6 February & 10 March
Porto v Arsenal
Porto, lest it be forgot, have won the European Cup/Champions League twice, once as recently as 2004 under Jose Mourinho, which is twice more than Arsenal. They are not to be under-estimated. Constantly re-inventing themselves after selling on players (much like Arsenal, a cynic might say) they are good in possession and firm at the back where Bruno Alves marshals the defence. Striker Hulk (left) is beginning to produce performances to justify his attention-grabbing name while goalkeeper Helton and midfielder Raul Meireles are the other key figures in the Dragons' spine. Vitor Baia, the veteran keeper now Porto's international director, said: "We have great confidence."
17 February & 9 March
Bayern Munich v Fiorentina
No doubting who was happier with this draw. Bayern thumped Fiorentina last season and drubbed their Serie A rivals Juventus 4-1 earlier this month. Louis van Gaal, the Bayern coach, admitted: "I am not dissatisfied; it could have been worse." His counterpart, Cesare Prandelli, moaned: "Maybe it would have been better to finish second in the group".
17 February & 9 March
CSKA Moscow v Seville
Juande Ramos is the man to consult. He left Seville for Spurs two years ago, and was fired by CSKA this autumn after just 47 days in charge. CSKA subsequently reached the knock-out stage for the first time but will struggle to go further, especially as Russian clubs are in the their off-season in February. However, Seville will not enjoy playing on the Luzhniki's plastic pitch.
24 February & 16 March
Lyons v Real Madrid
Lyons have a good record against Real, so they were respectful, but not fearful. "Madrid are among the best three teams in Europe and feature great players like [ex-Lyons striker Karim] Benzema, Kaka and [Cristiano] Ronaldo," said defender Cris. Then he added: "They are a good draw though. They are an attacking team, rebuilt this season. We could have drawn Barcelona or Chelsea."
16 February & 10 March
Olympiakos v Bordeaux
Bordeaux's outstanding group-stage performance was rewarded with a winnable tie against a side which scored four goals in six group games. "Bordeaux were one of the most impressive teams," said Zico, the Greek club's coach. Laurent Blanc, his Bordeaux counterpart, was more concerned by the location. "The trip to Athens will be hot to boiling because of the home fans."
23 February & 17 March
Stuttgart v Barcelona
Stuttgart's odds shot out to 150-1 after being paired with the holders but some will relish the tie. Jens Lehmann, dismissed early in Arsenal's 2006 Champions League final against Barça, should not lack motivation, nor former Arsenal team-mate Alex Hleb, on loan to Stuttgart from the Catalans. Victory would also confirm the post-Tottenham rehabilitation of coach Christian Gross.
23 February & 17 MarchReuse content