Crespo pounces on Carroll's latest error to give United an uphill task

Manchester United 0 Milan 1
Click to follow

Roy Carroll began the day by rejecting a new contract offer from Manchester United and by its end, his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, might wonder whether any further talks are necessary.

Roy Carroll began the day by rejecting a new contract offer from Manchester United and by its end, his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, might wonder whether any further talks are necessary.

The Ulsterman is not exactly negotiating from a position of strength. There have been too many errors already - "the goal that never was" against Tottenham last month, the shot allowed through his body against Lyon. However, compared to Carroll's failure to hold Clarence Seedorf's drive in the 78th minute, these were mere irritants. As the shot spilled from his gloves into the path of Hernan Crespo, it turned a poor night for Manchester United into a dreadful one. Perhaps a period of silence from his agent would be welcome.

At a stroke Crespo's goal smashed the formula that has served Ferguson well in European football; land the knock-out blow at Old Trafford and hold the line away from home. This was United's first European defeat at home in four years and in that time they have generally performed feebly in the great stadiums of Europe. Last night, Ferguson, probably rightly given the striker's lengthy absence, chose not to risk his ace, Ruud van Nistelrooy, but at San Siro, needing to score twice to qualify for the quarter-finals of the European Cup, he will have to play the perfect hand.

When two years ago Milan won the European Cup at Old Trafford they had played a soporific game in stultifying heat. Now, they kicked off with snow drifting down over Manchester to take part in an entirely different kind of match; fast, desperate and sometimes thrilling.

For the opening 20 minutes the two sides flung themselves at each other. It was a time when Paul Scholes, the one man Ferguson might have backed to strike the target from a dozen yards, squandered a glaring opportunity, when Seedorf drove his free-kick against the top of the bar, a time when you almost expected the match to have burned itself out by half-time.

It did not, although there was no way the pace could last. Were this a boxing match, Milan would have been the elegant southpaw with a smooth jab. Manchester United, only slightly less technically adept, possessed the fiercer, more obvious punch.

Electricity crackled from the Stretford End. The last time United had faced Milan at Old Trafford in the 1969 European Cup semi-final, their keeper, Fabio Cudicini - Carlo's father - had been knocked unconscious by a piece of metal thrown from the terracing. Last night, Dida escaped a flurry of missiles but twice before the interval he might have picked the ball from his net.

That Milan's back four, as classy as a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and almost of the same vintage, was seriously troubled by Quinton Fortune was one of the night's less predictable events. First, the South African wriggled past three defenders and sent across a low ball that found Scholes a few yards to the right of the penalty spot. The midfielder steadied himself, took aim and you could almost imagine the net billowing. Instead, came the thump of ball against advertising hoarding.

Fortune's second intervention, a few minutes from the break, was even more unexpected, from the kind of fluid break Milan fancy themselves the masters of. Cristiano Ronaldo drove himself forward and his pass reached Fortune as Dida committed himself too early. Had Fortune been a Van Nistelrooy, he might have had the instinct to slip it past the Brazilian and into the net. He managed the first but not the second.

With less than half an hour remaining, Ferguson finally introduced Van Nistelrooy. However, not even a forward of his quality could be expected to shrug off three months' worth of rust in the midst of a tie of this magnitude against a defence of Milan's quality.

His compatriot, Jaap Stam, who had talked all week how he was anticipating this return to Old Trafford, failed even to get on to the pitch, having pulled a hamstring during the warm-up. For United's Dutchmen, past and present, this was an evening to consign to oblivion.

Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Carroll; G Neville (Silvestre, 79) Ferdinand, Brown, Heinze; Keane, Fortune (Saha, 79); Ronaldo (Van Nistelrooy, 62) Scholes, Giggs; Rooney. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), P Neville, Smith, O'Shea.

Milan (4-1-3-1-1): Dida; Cafu (Costacurta, 86), Nesta, Maldini, Kaladze; Pirlo (Ambrosini, 84); Gattuso, Kaka (Serginho, 89), Seedorf; Rui Costa; Crespo. Substitutes not used: Abbiati (gk), Tomasson, Dhorasoo.

Referee: M Gonzalez (Spain).