It was, as the cliché goes, a game very much of two halves. So wayward in approach, United could have been out of the Champions League 20 minutes into Wednesday’s match in Milan. The half-time hairdryer worked as United produced an outstanding display of attacking football in the second period to take a lead into the Old Trafford leg.
United’s unlikely victory – the club has never beaten Milan in Italy’s second city – completes an astonishing turnaround in United’s fortunes this season. Lack of form, league and cup defeats and an injury list ranking among the very worst of Sir Alex Ferguson’s long managerial career added to a sense of impending dread come the turn of the year.
But since the Carling Cup defeat to Manchester City at Eastlands on 19 January United has rolled off five wins, with only the draw at Aston Villa a blot on the copybook.
It’s a series of results that have taken United to a second consecutive Carling Cup final, to within a point of Chelsea in the Premier League and a probable Champions League quarter-final.
Wednesday’s victory was often in doubt however as United repeatedly wasted possession in defensive areas. Had the superb Wayne Rooney been in Milan’s colours and not United’s then Ferguson side would surely have been out of the tie within a quarter.
Ferguson, clearly angry with a team that has built up real momentum in recent weeks, let loose the infamous ‘hairdryer’ at half-time in Milan.
“I was very frustrated in the first half with a lot of things,” said the Scot, who is seeking a third consecutive Champions League final.
“Some people were not doing their jobs right and I let my feelings be known. We learned from that and won the game, which I am delighted about.
“It was a bad start to the match for us but after that we did well to get back in it,” he added.
“We fully deserved to win and overall I felt we were the better team. I’m disappointed to concede the second goal because I felt we were in control, but 3-2 in San Siro is a great result.”
The catalyst of United’s recent form has been the effervescent Rooney, whose two goals on Wednesday night take the former-Evertonian to 25 for the season.
It is likely that the striker will feature on both the European and PFA awards short-lists in the coming weeks such is the 24-year-old’s outstanding form this campaign.
Naturally Ferguson was as effusive about Rooney’s contribution to the victory in Milan as he was angry with the team’s first half performance.
“Wayne Rooney, in the second half, continued his recent form,” the Scot said.
“He was absolutely devastating and they couldn’t handle him. He was marvellous. He is improving all the time and he is one of the best players in the world now.
“I think this season, particularly in the last two months, we’ve seen a development in his game. Confidence has a lot to do with it.”
While Kaká, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are generally recognised as the world’s best Ferguson believes that Rooney belongs within the élite group. It is a view that only the most partisan of non-United supporters will disagree with.
“His basic ability is as good as any of those players, but what he needed to do was improve his scoring and that is what he is doing now,” added the United manager.
“If he continues that trend, he must be regarded alongside all those players at the very top.
“That’s 25 he has got now. I said recently that he could get 30 or more goals and he has a good chance.”
30 goals that could just fire United to Champions and Premier League glory come May.