Milan threat is far greater than just one Englishman

Leonardo's team can be a potent attacking force and will pose United problems

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.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution