Manchester United’s treble-chasing team face their biggest test yet this season when they come face to face with Europe’s most experienced campaigners, Milan in Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg.
The game has been characterised as a battle between youth and experience with the likes of United’s effervescent youngsters Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney pitted against an ageing team comprising six thirty somethings.
Visiting captain Paolo Maldini made his Milan debut before either Ronaldo or Rooney were born. But while United have undoubtedly matured since suffering 1-0 home-and-away defeats to Milan in the first knockout round in 2005, Milan are hardly showing their age at the business end of the season.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson believes there will be little to choose between the teams over the course of two legs.
“I sometimes look at our team and wish we had more experience in certain situations, but on the other hand the future lies with younger players,” said Ferguson.
“Maldini leaves a legacy; young players like Rooney and Ronaldo give you a future, so it’s difficult to say which is best at this moment in time.”
“You can’t deny that type of experience,” he said, singling out Maldini, whom he described as his favourite European player of the last 15 years.
But, it’s not all creaking limbs for Milan tonight; in Kaka, they possess the tournament’s leading scorer with seven goals – and a player who, according to his coach Carlo Ancelotti, rivals Ronaldo as the “best in the world”.
“I agree that they are among the best players in the world at the moment but it is extremely difficult to say who is the best,” said Ancelotti.
“That will come down to who can decide the outcome of the game.”
Ancelotti hopes should be boosted by the return of goalkeeper Dida from a shoulder injury. United, by contrast, have a growing injury list, which could deprive them of their entire first choice back four.
Although Patrice Evra is available again, he is unlikely to start, while Rio Ferdinand joined fellow defenders Gary Neville and Nemanja Vidic on the sidelines by injuring his groin in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough.
“There are going to be some big players missing but the important thing is not to focus on that and to focus on imposing our game as we managed a couple of years ago,” said Ancelotti.
Milan have come out on top in their three previous two-legged encounters against United and have won nine of eleven semi-finals in this competition – compared with United’s two from six.
Milan will provide firmer resistance than AS Roma but Ferguson, undeterred by his absentees, said: “It is vital to have a go and hopefully score, to give us a real chance. The name of the game is to win and not concede a goal.”
Edwin van der Sar; Darren Fletcher, Wes Brown, Gabriel Heinze, John O’Shea; Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes; Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney; Alan Smith.
Dida; Massimo Oddo, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Marek Jankulovski; Massimo Ambrosini, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso; Clarence Seedorf, Kaká; Filippo Inzaghi.