David Beckham delivered the perfect publicity coup for the Manchester United green-and-gold campaign last night, leaving the Old Trafford pitch with one of the campaign's scarves draped around his neck after United had smashed Milan 4-0 to storm into the Champions League quarter-finals.
The scarf, picked up from a fan as Beckham left the pitch, seemed to have made a parting statement in what the 34-year-old acknowledged last night was "possibly" his last competitive match at Old Trafford. If that was the case, Beckham certainly rowed back on the gesture late last night. "I am a Manchester United fan. I saw the scarf there and just put it round my neck," he said. "It's the old colours [of Newton Heath, which preceded United] and that's all I know." Asked if he appreciated the symbolism he said: "It's not my business. I am a Manchester United fan and I support the club. I always will. It's nothing to do with me how it's run."
His timing was impeccable, though. United fans, galvanised by the attempts of the so-called "Red Knights" to buy out the clubs owners, the Glazer family, delivered "Glazers Out" chants throughout the match and held up anti-Glazer placards. Avram Glazer, son of Malcolm Glazer, ran the gauntlet to be at the game.
On a night rendered even sweeter for the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, by Real Madrid's shock exit at the hands of Lyons, Wayne Rooney maintained his imperious form with two goals, taking his season's ally to 30. "I think this year Rooney can grow up even more," the Milan manager, Leonardo, reflected after the 7-2 aggregate defeat. "He's the complete player; strong, fast and he does a lot of incredible movement... over short and long distances."
Ferguson said: "When we play like that we are very difficult to compete against." Unlike his Arsenal counterpart, Arsène Wenger, he does not have a preference for English opposition next. "With that team I've got, it doesn't matter who we play next," Ferguson, adding that new training routines had assisted Rooney's progress as probably the finest striker in the world on current form, with 21 goals in as many games now.
"He's improved his movement in the box but he has also been practising a lot more this season than ever before," Ferguson said of Rooney. "He's putting in extra work after training and I think you get the rewards of that. We try to encourage them all to do that. We've set little practices for a lot of players and they're responding to it."
United led from the 13th minute through a Rooney header, courtesy of the right boot of Gary Neville, who delivered an impeccable cross. Rooney doubled the advantage a minute after the interval when he strode on to a fine ball launched from the outside of Nani's boot and touched it right-footed past Christian Abbiati.
It was three when Park Ji-sung latched on to Paul Scholes' precise pass just before the hour and Darren Fletcher wrapped things up two minutes from time, getting his head first to a looping ball from substitute Rafael da Silva to power United on their way.
But Beckham still loomed large on the night, arriving from the bench just past the hour and providing several superb crosses and a powerful volley to test Edwin van der Sar before he took a long and emotional farewell. His abiding memory would be "just the fans, the way they were to me," he reflected. "It's always special here. It's unbelievable, really unbelievable, and I have to say thank you to them. It's just so nice to be back."
Last night's highlights
Man Utd 4-0 Milan (7-2)
Real Madrid 1-1 Lyons (1-2)
Burnley 1-1 Stoke City