Crespo delivers knock-out blow as United's lack of experience tells

<preform>Milan 1 - Manchester United 0</BR> <i>Milan win 2-0 on aggregate</i></preform>
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The Independent Football

Even far away on a foreign field Manchester United were unable to avoid the curse of Chelsea. Hernan Crespo, a Chelsea player on loan to Milan, last night scored the only goal of this Champions' League tie, doubling the lead he had given Milan at Old Trafford a fortnight ago and condemning United to another season of European frustration.

Even far away on a foreign field Manchester United were last night unable to avoid the curse of Chelsea. Hernan Crespo, a Chelsea player on loan to Milan, scored the only goal of this Champions' League tie, doubling the lead he had given Milan at Old Trafford a fortnight ago and condemning United to another season of European frustration.

Narrow though the margin was, Milan deserved victory but while the Italians were clearly the better side, United will long remember the sight of Ryan Giggs hitting the post with the game goalless.

"My hope was that we would score the goal that would change the game and the first good chance fell to us with Ryan Giggs," said Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager. "Who knows what would have happened afterwards if it had gone in? It was a very thin line between winning and losing. We had three outstanding chances, two fell to Ruud van Nistelrooy. Normally he would take them but on the night his lack of sharpness cost us."

Since lifting the trophy in 1999, United have consistently qualified from the group stages but have lost six out of seven two-legged knock-out ties. The margins have often been slim and the United manager felt Milan had edged this tie because of their better finishing and greater experience. The latter, he said, would come, there was no need for United fans to despair.

"Sometimes our decision-making was rash," Ferguson admitted. "That is down to experience. Paolo Maldini and Cafu were the best two players over the tie and look at their experience. But I'm happy with the quality of the team, and with their age ­ they can grow together."

The Milan coach, Carlo Ancelotti, who said he hoped to extend Crespo's loan by a year, concurred. "We have the experience to manage the level of tension," he said. United's players have racked up a lot of European games but not that many of this magnitude and only Roy Keane, Giggs and Paul Scholes in this arena in the red shirt. For the rest it was a new and chastening experience.

Ferguson had picked a team replete with potential matchwinners but short on ballwinners and it soon became clear Milan posed the greater threat. Tim Howard made an important save from Kaka as early as the seventh minute and then had to gather from Rui Costa as the home side broke again.

Not that Milan were content to sit back and draw United on to them. Even Jaap Stam pushed forward, one surging run evoking wistful Mancunian memories on the Curva Nord ­ and anger from Keane and Rio Ferdinand as Van Nistelrooy let him go.

The Dutchman's reluctance to track Stam made one wonder about his fitness. But if his physical sharpness still needed work, mentally he looked fine when, on 27 minutes, he released Giggs on the left. His shot beat the statuesque Dida, but struck the far post and drifted away.

Nine minutes later Milan also hit the woodwork. Mikaël Silvestre failed to control a cross and Kaka seized upon the error to rasp a drive past Howard and against the bar.

As long as the game remained goalless United were in contention but their defence was under regular bombardment, primarily from the evergreen Cafu. Twice Crespo wasted opportunities he provided. It could not continue and shortly after the hour mark Cafu again found space on the right. He picked out Crespo drifting off his marker and the Argentine nodded a looping header back across goal and over Howard. United now needed to score twice in 29 minutes ­ a tall order.

Nevertheless, had Van Nistelrooy been match-sharp they might have scored once within 10 minutes. But when the ball fell to him at the far post the Dutchman took an age to get off his shot, then pulled it wide.

United's ambitions would seem to be reduced to defending the FA Cup but Ferguson was defiant in defeat. Referring to Milan's whittling away of Juventus' eight-point lead in Serie A, he said: "The same thing could happen with us."

Milan (4-3-2-1): Dida; Cafu, Nesta, Stam, Maldini; Gattuso (Costacurta, 89), Pirlo, Seedorf; Rui Costa (Dhorasoo, 85), Kaka; Crespo (Ambrosini, 78). Substitutes not used: Abbiati (gk), Inzaghi, Tomasson, Serginho.

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Howard; Brown (Smith, 85), Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Keane, Scholes; Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs (Fortune, 57); Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Carroll (gk), P Neville, Bellion, Miller, O'Shea.

Referee: H Fandel (Germany).

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