United need another famous night for sting in Milanese tale

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Having lost only three Serie A games between them all season, Milan and Internazionale will go into today's most local of derbies at the San Siro in better heart than ever after their midweek adventures in Europe. The second-biggest roar of the night from the thousands of Milan followers at Old Trafford on Wednesday - the first having acclaimed Hernan Crespo's winning goal - may have greeted the news that their despised co-tenants had been pegged back to finish 1-1 away to the Champions' League holders, Porto; but both must be fancied to progress to the quarter-finals, a claim that could also be made on behalf on Italy's other great force, Juventus, who limited Real Madrid to one disputed goal in Spain.

Having lost only three Serie A games between them all season, Milan and Internazionale will go into today's most local of derbies at the San Siro in better heart than ever after their midweek adventures in Europe. The second-biggest roar of the night from the thousands of Milan followers at Old Trafford on Wednesday - the first having acclaimed Hernan Crespo's winning goal - may have greeted the news that their despised co-tenants had been pegged back to finish 1-1 away to the Champions' League holders, Porto; but both must be fancied to progress to the quarter-finals, a claim that could also be made on behalf on Italy's other great force, Juventus, who limited Real Madrid to one disputed goal in Spain.

When it comes to the peculiar dynamics of two-legged football, the Italians seemed to be suggesting that they are once again the real deal: three away fixtures in the Champions' League and only two goals scored but, critically, only two conceded by teams who know their strengths. "We have a great defence and great counterattack," said Paolo Maldini, reflecting on another triumph in his 765th competitive match for Milan (plus a little matter of 126 internationals). With Alessandro Nesta (72 European Cup games, 67 internationals) alongside him, and full-backs of the quality of Cafu (a last-minute replacement for Jaap Stam) and Kakhaber Kaladze outshining Gary Neville and Gabriel Heinze, Old Trafford was left wondering when Manchester United last completed a home game without managing a shot on target.

Not that this was simply a stifling operation. The counterattacking aspect of Maldini's assess-ment is as important as the defensive part, and in the Brazilian Ricardo Kaka they have an exponent of the highest quality. The prospect of Europe's Footballer of the Year, Andriy Shevchenko, being fit enough to link up with him again for the second leg could cause serious sleep deprivation in certain select houses in the Manchester footballer-belt. Sir Alex Ferguson tried hard to make the case that Milan attacked more than might have been expected "because they were worried about us over there", but he knows that United will now need an away performance to match the historic landmarks of Benfica 1966 (5-1), Real Madrid '68 (3-3) and Juventus '99 (3-2) to avoid elimination at the first knockout stage for the fifth time in six seasons.

The most recent of those famous nights is scorched sufficiently deep in the memory for Juve's countrymen to be protected against complacency. Hence the warning notes among the satisfied smiles as they made their way to the team bus on Wednesday night. "It's a perfect night, but United are a great team, so aggressive," Crespo conceded, while allowing himself the not-displeasing thought of meeting up with Chelsea again somewhere along the way.

"We're not saying we're through, everyone knows what happened in the past with United," added Stam, a proud member of Ferguson's team that night in Turin, when Roy Keane led the comeback from 2-0 down with one of the great individual performances. And everyone knows, he might have added, what happened to Milan a year ago, when they took an apparently impregnable 4-1 lead to La Coruña in the quarter-finals. But what nobody knows is exactly how they managed to lose 4-0. "Nobody could believe it, but this is a different season," Maldini insisted. "I don't know if we're stronger, but maybe we have more experience."

United, with Rio Ferdinand, Heinze, Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney added to the team who went out last year to Porto, should be both stronger and more experienced, though there was little evidence of either quality in defeat in front of a hushed, disbelieving crowd on Wednesday. Only Ferdinand and Wes Brown in the centre of defence even approached their potential, even then falling short at the crucial moment of the game by allowing Crespo to react faster to Roy Carroll's howler - the latest example of the goalkeeping problems afflicting all England's Champions' League contenders except for Chelsea.

When the subject was last raised in these pages, at the time of the draw for the first knockout round, Arsenal's former goalkeeping coach Bob Wilson spoke of "an impossible job" under present conditions. Arsène Wenger used exactly the same phrase last week, four days before Jens Lehmann's misjudgement allowed Bayern Munich their third goal, and Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek gave Bayer Leverkusen a glimmer of hope that they should not have been allowed.

Even Internazionale suffered, the experienced Francesco Toldo feebly prodding out a cross to set up Porto's equaliser for Ricardo Costa. The second leg of that tie must wait an extra week, because of United's visit to the San Siro, which would end up staging two more epic derbies at some stage if the Milanese clubs were drawn together, as happened two seasons ago. That year, of course, Italy's big three comprised three-quarters of the semi-final participants, Milan squeezing out Inter on an "away" goal in their own stadium before beating Juventus on penalties in a goalless final reckoned to be either the dullest thing since sliced white bread or a glorious example of technical virtuosity.

After a rather dispiriting week for the English, it could all come to pass again. In the meantime, Serie A awaits il derby, which Inter enter unbeaten in 38 games and with the strangest record in any major European league: played 25, won 9, drawn 16, lost 0.

Comments