David Beckham will receive a hero’s welcome when he takes to the field for AC Milan at Old Trafford tonight. Rightly so, not only is Beckham a great former Manchester United player but a supporter at heart. There ends the friendship as Sir Alex Ferguson’s United look to beat Milan for the first tiem in Europe’s premier competition.
Ferguson’s side will have to make do without a string on injured and suspended players. Ryan Giggs’ broken arm has not healed sufficiently for the Welshman to play despite training this week. Meanwhile, defender Wes Brown will miss the next six weeks with a crack in the fifth metatarsal of his left foot.
Long term absentees Anderson, John O’Shea, Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves will also sit out the game along with the suspended Michael Carrick.
However, the Scot’s most pressing concern is at right-back with a choice between Rafael da Silva, given such a torrid time by Ronaldinho in the first leg, and Gary Neville who is showing increasing age with each match.
Better news concerns Wayne Rooney, who trained with the first team at Carrington yesterday morning and will start in a probable 4-3-3 formation against the Italians.
“I looked at him on Friday and didn’t think he had any chance,” Ferguson said yesterday.
“But he has progressed and he plays and, on this form, he would be a threat to anyone. That is what he will provide for us: a real threat up front.”
It’s a threat that history says is required, with United’s record against Milan showing no aggregate wins in four European ties. United has won the last five home games against Serie A opponents but its losing record to Milan dates to 1958. Ferguson believes the run is there for the taking his side’s landmark win in Italy three weeks ago.
“European football is an ever-changing process. The challenge last year was to get past Barcelona to win the trophy and the Italians were not as good as the Spaniards,” Ferguson said.
“But there has been a little shift and the Italian teams are better this year. That’s why winning in Milan was a big step forward for Manchester United. It was the first time in four attempts that we had done it.
“I was delighted with it because, historically, we were playing against one of the best European teams of all time. So it was a landmark victory for us. I can’t help but think it was a really, really important win for us – a psychological thing.”
Although Ferguson does not believe that Beckham will start tonight’s match – he has sat on the bench since disappointing in Milan’s 3-2 defeat to United at the San Siro – heavy focus is naturally given to the former Red.
It’s a circus that has not enveloped United’s players, says Darren Fletcher, who dominated the midfield battle with Beckham in the first leg.
“First and foremost he’s a top class player, as a youngster at Manchester United he was one of the players I looked up to,” said the Scotland captain.
“Obviously he’s moved on and had a successful career and he’s still battling for a place in the England World Cup squad. He’ll be keen to impress coming back to Old Trafford but we’re focused on ourselves and winning the game.
“He’ll get a great reception but once we get on the pitch all that friendship goes out of the window”
It will need a big performance from the influential midfield enforcer with the tie balanced marginally in United’s favour. However, the 3-2 aggregate lead is not one Ferguson intends to sit on.
“The nature of our club is that we have to have a positive attitude,” added Ferguson.
“When we went 3-1 ahead in Milan, for instance, it would have been easy to shut up shop but we kept looking for that fourth goal and sometimes it makes games more exciting than they need be.
“We maybe should have killed off the game but then Seedorf’s goal near the end keeps the match on a tightrope. I don’t think we should be confused by the score of 3-2 – it does not represent a bye into the quarter-finals.”
United (4-3-3): van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Gibson, Scholes, Fletcher; Valencia, Rooney, Nani.