There's no getting around where the real theatre lies tonight and as if David Beckham's first encounter with the club which defined him wasn't significant enough, yesterday happened to be seven years to the day since a legendary flying boot in the Highbury dressing room, after United had been beaten 2-0 in an FA Cup fifth-round tie, set the seal on the deteriorating relationship between the player and his Manchester United manager.
But Sir Alex Ferguson has profound reasons for having little time and patience for the sub plot surrounding a player who is far from the most potent threat Manchester United will face this evening. Ferguson knows too well that the red-and-black battles between these sides have all been black occasions for United. Four clashes in knockout ties between the two have brought just as many defeats and though this Milan side do not look capable of replicating the stunning, sobering 3-0 win over United at San Siro in May 2007 – last year's final aside, Ferguson has not lost an away tie in Europe since – the Italian club will pose a serious threat.
There were some serious doubts when the Rossoneri elevated Leonardo, the ex-Milan midfielder who had served as a scout and executive but had no experience as a coach, into Carlo Ancelotti's seat and saw him limp to three wins from the first eight games of the season. But Milan are a more attacking force than Ancelotti's side and Ronaldinho's flashes of something like the ability which will cause David Seaman always to remember a particular World Cup quarter-final in Japan are back.
Though the 29-year-old lacks some of his former pace, he has one of the best assist records in Serie A and Leonardo's decision to deploy a 4-3-3 formation has returned Ronaldinho to a playing system he is familiar with from Nou Camp. The Brazilian coach Dunga has suddenly been tracking him assiduously.
One beneficiary of the renaissance is Alexandre Pato, the 20-year-old who has two characteristics which are not in abundance here: pace and youth. Someone at his old Brazilian club Internacional decided that the young Brazilian should be named after his home town – Pato actually translates as 'white duck' – and though he has not reached the height this season that he assumed last, he doesn't waddle. Pato's appearance from the bench in the 3-2 win against Udinese has heightened a belief in Milan that he will be fit, possibly with Beckham and Ronaldinho either side of him. It is easy to see why Ferguson sounded uncertain about the readiness of Rio Ferdinand, with just two games in the last four months, to contend with the attacking options at the Milan coach's disposal.
Leonardo's decision to ensure Beckham was available to talk yesterday is no guarantee that he will play him, though the emotional force which will propel Beckham heightens the temptation. The contours of the Englishman's past six weeks in Milan have replicated the club's own. There were thrashings of Siena, Juventus (in Turin) and Genoa – but then the 2-0 defeat in the Milan derby, followed by two subsequent draws. Beckham was described by one commentator as a "waxwork dummy" against Inter and watched the entirety of the second drawn game, against Bologna, from the bench.
Beyond the diplomatic niceties, Beckham will be reinforcing the message to his team-mates that United have hardly been impressive either. There has been less of the struggle to convert opportunities into goals of late, though the presence of Clarence Seedorf – who Wayne Rooney was still remembering yesterday for his mighty performance in the May 2007 encounter – and a resurgent Alessandro Nesta, now free of injury, will make creating things difficult tonight.
Leonardo is prepared to revert to more of the Ancelotti-style pragmatism than usual. "We have 180 minutes to decide this tie," he said yesterday. "One of our objectives is to not concede." United really should prevail across two games. But there is enough on Ferguson's plate to make Beckham a minor consideration.Reuse content