When David Beckham passed through Manchester Airport in a previous era, United used to insist that he wear a blazer and tie. Travelling with Milan is an altogether more casual affair but, while the attire has changed, the television cameras, flash-guns and crowds thrusting forward autograph requests must have seemed eerily familiar. The “Becks Factor” was back in Manchester.
As if a Champions League fixture between Manchester United and Milan needed any extra stardust, then this was it. Should he play, this will be Beckham's first return to face his former club at Old Trafford. Whatever he may or may not offer Milan – and he has not started a game since facing United at San Siro last month – the man certainly makes an impact.
"It will be good to see Alex Ferguson again. He is a scary man but in a really good way," Beckham said in an interview, with Match of the Day magazine, before leaving for Manchester. "He has played such an important role in my life and, during my time at Manchester United, he was like a father figure to me."
"I would have liked to have stayed for my whole career but sometimes things aren't meant to be. I have been to three great clubs since leaving United but it would have been lovely to have stayed there like Ryan Giggs has done."
His last appearance at Old Trafford on a Champions League night was the evening his relationship with Ferguson broke down. It was 2003, the opponents were Real Madrid and the dominant figure was Ronaldo. Beckham had begun on the bench, as Ferguson expects him to tonight, and watched as the Brazilian destroyed United with the kind of muscular brilliance he was capable of at his peak before leaving the field to a standing ovation.
Beckham came on to play with a verve and passion that few thought him capable of, scoring twice to turn the game into a 4-3 win on the night, although Madrid still went through to the semi-finals on aggregate.
In the small hours at home in Alderley Edge, Beckham watched a rerun of the game on the club's television station, MUTV, nursing a glass of chilled water that he almost spilled when the cameras lingered on Ferguson's reaction to his goals, which he thought were looks almost of disgust. Scary, but not in a good way.
That night Beckham became determined to quit the club he had supported since boyhood. The rift with Ferguson has been largely healed, and half a dozen miles from Manchester Airport, at Old Trafford, Ferguson was asked yesterday what, at 34, Beckham might still bring to the grandest of stages.
In the first leg, which United won 3-2, Ferguson felt Milan's coach, Leonardo, missed a trick by playing Beckham in central midfield – a mistake Ferguson himself made in the 1999 European Cup final. "David's strength has always been in his crossing and his set-piece play and that has been true throughout all of his career," the Scot reflected. "Over the last 15 years, Milan have been incredibly successful in keeping older players going, men like [Paolo] Maldini and [Alessandro] Costacurta who played until they were approaching their forties. People might look on the age of the squad as a negative factor but what it does give Milan is great experience and I tend to lean towards experience as being a positive thing. But I haven't really got Beckham down in my conclusions," Ferguson added, appearing more concerned by whether Alexandre Pato had recovered from a hamstring injury.
"The one thing we are all aware of is that David is still a wonderful deliverer of a ball." Throughout Ferguson referred to him as "David". A few years ago it would have been "Beckham".
But Mr Beckham was not quite the only show in town. Leonardo was asked by Brazilian TV about another 30-something who still has hopes of a last World Cup hurrah in South Africa. This might, he agreed, be the opportunity Ronaldinho craves to impress Dunga, coach of the Selecao, that he still has a future with Brazil.
Unlike either man, Wayne Rooney knows that barring another wrecked metatarsal – an injury sustained by Wes Brown at Wolverhampton on Saturday that will keep the England defender out for six weeks – he will be a central figure in the World Cup.
Rooney missed that match at Molineux mainly because Ferguson thought he had over-exerted himself at Wembley for England last week. "On his current form, he would be a threat to anyone," Ferguson said, knowing that a United goal tonight is his best insurance against the 2-0 or 3-1 win that would take Milan through.
"We have to have that positive attitude. That's the nature of our club," he said. "Sometimes we can make games more exciting than they need be. When we were leading 3-1 in the San Siro we could have shut up shop but we still kept looking for that fourth goal. Sometimes we get the benefit, sometimes we don't, but the most important thing is that the philosophy is the right one.
"But I can understand Milan feeling confident. They got that second goal towards the end and that will give them momentum. However, you can talk all you like but I back my team to produce and produce they will."
Key battles: Where United must win tonight
*Wayne Rooney v Alessandro Nesta The in-form England striker will be chomping at the bit to return to action after missing the 1-0 win at Wolves, but will have his work cut out against the strong and experienced Nesta, who will be out to avenge Rooney's two goals at San Siro.
*Darren Fletcher v Andrea Pirlo Giving the Italian maestro too much time and space on the ball can be costly, as United have found out in the past. The tigerish Fletcher will be set the task to stick to the 30-year-old's heels and keep him from dictating the play.
Rio Ferdinand v Klaas-Jan Huntelaar Ferdinand has managed just four games in four months, although United have kept clean sheets in two of those and his presence will boost the hosts. Will have to be at his best to nullify the all-round threat of the technically superb Huntelaar.Reuse content