Man Utd 4 – 0 AC Milan (agg 7 – 2)
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer at Old Trafford
David Beckham’s return to Old Trafford was brief and ended in the disappointment of comprehensive defeat as Manchester United swept past AC Milan into the Champions League quarter-finals.
Beckham only made a 27-minute appearance as a substitute, and while he was deservedly given a rapturous reception on the ground where he was once idolised, he found himself overshadowed by Wayne Rooney’s latest masterclass.
AC Milan’s hopes of reaching the last eight were already extinguished by the time Beckham entered to a standing ovation with United leading 3-0 – and Rooney was the man responsible as he repeated his two-goal demolition of the Italians at the San Siro on home territory.
Rooney headed United in front from Gary Neville’s cross early on and extended United’s 3-2 advantage from the first leg even further seconds after half-time after good work by Nani. Ji-Sung Park drilled in the third on the hour as United exerted complete control.
Darren Fletcher added the fourth with a diving header from Rafael’s cross three minutes from time to put added gloss on a hugely satisfying evening for Sir Alex Ferguson as he bids to take United to the Champions League final for the third season in succession.
Beckham made a greater impact than most of his hapless colleagues after his introduction, with some trademark crosses and a full-blooded volley that flew straight at Edwin van der Sar.
And with the football business successfully concluded, United’s supporters conducted a protest against the Glazer family, with huge banners unfurled around Old Trafford and thousands of green and gold scarves, the symbol of their discontent, on display.
Joel and Avi Glazer were in attendance at Old Trafford, and they were left in no doubt about the strength of feeling against their regime as the protests swept around the ground.
Fletcher’s goal interrupted the well-orchestrated demonstration, but as a show of strength it was as impressive as some of United’s play as they outclassed Milan.
Beckham milked the applause at the final whistle, but he had received a brutal demonstration of the gap between the club he left behind and the one he graces now, albeit on a temporary basis.
And Old Trafford’s joy was complete as news filtered through that Real Madrid, regarded as one of their major rivals, had fallen at the hands of Lyon in The Bernabeu.
Beckham’s hopes of celebrating his Old Trafford comeback with a place in Milan’s starting line-up were dashed when he was only named on the bench – and he watched anxiously as Rooney posted the early warning signs.
He was narrowly off target with a shot on the turn from the edge of the area, then the unlikely figure of Neville followed suit with a left-foot effort from long range that dipped just over the bar.
Milan had opportunities of their own amid the early sparring, with Ronaldinho’s header falling agonisingly wide for Milan after Nani had unwittingly flicked on Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar then betrayed his reputation as an accomplished marksman with a desperate piece of control with only Van der Sar to beat.
United, in the predictable form of Rooney, made them pay for the failure to take those half-chances as they took the lead after 13 minutes.
Neville delivered a cross his old friend and former team-mate Beckham would have been proud of, and Rooney maintained his lethal form in the air by flashing a header past Christian Abbiati.
Milan’s resolve was drastically reduced by this early setback and United were able to take control for the remainder of the half, with Fletcher almost adding a second with a rising drive that was only inches away.
Beckham was in the middle of receiving a standing ovation as he warmed up in the opening moments of the second half – only for Rooney to interrupt with United’s second and decisive goal.
Great credit must go to Nani, who played in an inviting cross from the left flank with the outside of his right foot for the incoming Rooney to steer another expert finish past Abbiati.
If Milan harboured any hopes of rescuing this lost cause, they were finally snuffed out as Park put United three up on the hour. He took a Paul Scholes pass in his stride before evading his marker and burying his finish in the far corner beyond Abbiati.
Milan had been generous enough, and coach Leonardo then gave Old Trafford even more of what it wanted by sending on Beckham for a 27-minute cameo, which was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation.
The admiration for Beckham was arguably surpassed two minutes later when Rooney was replaced by Dimitar Berbatov. Old Trafford again rose as one for the England striker, who departed after delivering yet another virtuoso performance.
Fletcher’s goal merely completed the formalities and, after Pippo Inzaghi missed a glorious chance to bag a consolation for Milan from a teasing Beckham cross in injury time, United departed with confidence growing that they are on course to reach the final in Madrid in May.