Ferguson banks on Van Nistelrooy for for knock-out blow

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The last time Milan came to Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson was a spectator watching Paolo Maldini lift the European Cup as the night sky over Manchester exploded with red-and-black streamers. To the Manchester United manager, whose whole being is fixed on reclaiming the trophy, it must have seemed like a taunt.

The last time Milan came to Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson was a spectator watching Paolo Maldini lift the European Cup as the night sky over Manchester exploded with red-and-black streamers. To the Manchester United manager, whose whole being is fixed on reclaiming the trophy, it must have seemed like a taunt.

When a year ago, Jose Mourinho made his one-man trench-coated dash down the touchline at Old Trafford as Porto eliminated United, it appeared that a VIP seat in the directors' box was the most Ferguson could look forward to whenever European Cup finals were contested. When this season they limped to draws in Lyon and Prague, Manchester United no longer resembled a squad which believed they could regain club football's greatest prize.

And yet what has always distinguished Ferguson's teams has been their capacity to reinvent themselves, drawing on deep reserves of talent, will and desire. Tonight, four months after their weary goalless draw against Sparta Prague, Manchester United face Milan touched by their old relentless aura, reborn during the Champions' League's winter break.

Asked whether United were not more likely to regain the European Cup when Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were slightly older and in their pomp, Ferguson was insistent. "A lot of our players have their futures ahead of them but they have to realise they have an opportunity to win the competition here," he said.

"They should not overlook the importance of the present; sometimes tomorrow never comes. They can win this competition this time, there is no question about that."

The great question hanging over Ferguson this morning is whether he will risk Ruud van Nistelrooy, who has not played since November but whose recovery from an Achilles operation has been funnelled towards this match. All the indications are that the Dutchman will start. By instinct, Ferguson is a gambler, who believes that the deep end is the best place to start. After his eight-month suspension for his failure to take a drugs test, Rio Ferdinand was thrown straight in against Liverpool, the domestic fixture Ferguson rates perhaps more highly than any other. Wayne Rooney was given no reserve match to bed himself down after a three-month absence with a foot injury before destroying Fenerbahce in a performance driven by adrenalin.

The fact that Van Nistelrooy has scored eight times in his last five Champions' League fixtures would probably tilt the balance in Ferguson's mind. "He is the best striker in Europe," he said without equivocation.

Andrei Shevchenko, the European Player of the Year, might care to debate that assertion. His absence after fracturing his cheekbone against Cagliari at the weekend, has deprived his coach, Carlo Ancelotti, of the man most likely to open up a United defence that in the 16 games they have played while the Champions' League has been in recess, has conceded eight goals.

Ferguson thought that under the circumstances Ancelotti would be perfectly content with a draw and, if United are to progress, you feel they would have to deliver the knock-out blow at Old Trafford, throwing Ryan Giggs, Ronaldo and Rooney at Milan's smoothly efficient but elderly back four, led by Maldini, who made his debut before Rooney was born.

Ferguson's belief has always been that knock-out football suits the British mentality but United's record in Champions' League knock-out games since winning the European Cup has been woeful. In six years, there has been one victory, over Deportivo La Coruña.

Twice before, Manchester United have beaten Milan in a European Cup semi-final at Old Trafford but lost in Italy. In 1958, Matt Busby saw Bobby Charlton withdrawn from the United squad so he could play for England in a friendly against Portugal and lost the second leg 4-0. Ferguson's reaction to this kind of interference can only be imagined.

Ferdinand drew on the memories of his European Cup semi-final with Leeds to illustrate the perils of judging a tie on a single leg. "We got to the semis and it fell out of our hands," he said of the dramatic spring of 2001. "We had drawn 0-0 at Elland Road and went over to Valencia quietly confident and they played us off the park. No matter what the result at Old Trafford, we know we are going to have to go to Milan and play to the best of our form. Those experiences with Leeds make you want to achieve more. You don't need to be pushed when you have massive games like these under the lights of Old Trafford."

Manchester United (probable 4-4-1-1): Carroll; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney; Van Nistelrooy.

Milan (probable 4-3-1-2): Dida; Stam, Nesta, Maldini, Kaladze; Pirlo, Gattuso, Kaka; Seedorf; Serginho, Crespo.

Referee: M Gonzalez (Spain).

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