The first leg tie at Old Trafford brings together
two of the heaviest pieces of artillery that European football can muster as an
on-form AC Milan meets an on-song Manchester United at Old Trafford. As the
match approaches Goal.com takes a quick glance over a few points that may come
into play at Old Trafford…
Sir Alex is still playing his favourite variations around the gold ol’4-4-2, his
side keeping the back four intact although varying attack and midfield. These
may well morph according to possession with a more offensive 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1
being used at home.
The Red Devil rearguard has come under fire for a certain sieve-like quality –
many heaping the lip-curling Lion’s share of the blame on the all-too-easy
target of Rio Ferdinand, but perhaps the main reason for United fans to worry is
the Heath Robinson nature of Sir Alex’s defense.
In any case the number 5 is out of both legs of the semi-final with a groin
strain that flared up during the recent 1-1 EPL draw against Middlesbrough.
United already had to do without Gary Neville, Nemanja Vidić and Mikaël
Silvestre – all in dry dock as well.
The testy Scottish tactician himself has pressed the alarm button with a warning
that the Man U defense has been blighted and left compromised. "It's an injury
crisis of major proportions," said the Sir.
The plague has cursed United to limping into the crucial part of a potentially
glorious season with defenders seemingly falling like flies and hampering hopes
of what could be another possible Treble to match the one from 1999: if the
defense holds up.
Brown and Heinze have still failed to find resonance, both out of tune with each
other in a tempting shape for a wily old opportunist vulture like Pippo Inzaghi.
Gabriel Heinze was lucky not to have been pulled up as he took out Luton Shelton
at Sheffield United.
His bit of gardening may not, like John O'Shea's weeding of Dong Lee against
Middlesbrough, have affected the results, but that kind of luck is harder to
come by in a Champions League match.
A Red Card may be a lethal double-edged weapon in English hands that leaves
United’s CL aspirations in tatters: down to ten men and without yet another
defender for San Siro. The only problem is that classic dilemma: attaining clean
without being soft.
The midfield is more stable with good news being the return of Paul Scholes
after the red-haired dynamo was red-carded at the Olímpico with a second yellow
for his lamentably familiar own brand of hacking-cum-tackling: as little malice
as precision but foolhardy nonetheless.
His presence should oxygenate the United midfield, although, and in all fairness
to the player’s many positive characteristics, he really wasn’t missed much in
the second leg against the Giallorossi. Carrick may well be seated deeper to
defuse this danger, although that may well reduce some home firepower.
United will want to clamp down on Kaká’s sprints forward as that will be a key
way forward for the Italians to launch counter-attacks, the number 22’s pace on
the break will need surgical stopping if Scholes, Carrick and Richardson/Fletcher
aren’t to be carded out of the game or the hosts aren’t to suffer a could-be
fatal away goal.
Pirlo will also have to be hassled by the United front line and midfield to stop
the Azzurri man’s long pass from being as lethal as it can be. His through balls
may be something that Ancelotti is counting on to bypass the United midfield and
up the pressure on a defense that can be rickety.
The recent Boro game saw an injury to Richardson force Fergie into a reshuffle
that moved Rooney wide right and played Cristiano Ronaldo through the centre.
That move kept the Portuguese international on the periphery and his body
language exhibited exasperation.
What remains to be seen is who’s to partner Rooney, although with the absence of
a pure number 9, it looks like mobility is the key to unlocking the best in the
number 8. Smith probably has an edge to start with Saha out, although Solskjaer
may be given the nod for his experience in crunch matches.
AC Milan's away record over and their recent scoring rate is solid enough to
stop their rivals from being fooled into a false sense of security by Milan’s
‘underdog’ status. With only four away defeats in the knockout rounds compared
to twelve wins and recently and a goal scoring average of close to three goals
per game, the Rossoneri are quite capable.
The system he uses is different from the Serie A set-up that allows for the
Fenômeno to play as the number 99 was left Cup-tied by Real Madrid, and the
Coach will probably resort to a modified 4-4-2; a 4-3-2-1 ‘Xmas Tree’ layout
more prudent given the away venue.
This will most likely see the back four fronted with a trio composed of Gattuso
and Ambrosini on the flanks and Pirlo in the centre of a reinforced holding
midfield, Kaká and Seedorf dividing the so-called Trequista function, although
they may be under orders to alternate.
The Rossoneri rearguard has been criticised for having a combined age that
verges on 170 years between Dida (34), Kalac (35), Simic (31), Nesta (31),
Maldini (38), Cafú (37) and Favalli (35), but hasn’t been doing badly
considering the twilight-year ages of the players.
This does, however, give Milan an edge over Manchester with a back four who – in
theory – can look back on a wealth of experience and a mutual understanding that
makes up for the fact that legs can feel heavy and sprints aren’t quite as fast
or frequent as before.
Positioning is the key here, particularly with the stage being Old Trafford.
Ancelotti won’t want to see flying wing-backs risking soft goals with
devil-may-care runs forward, and his men will be on a relatively short leash
with orders to get back with lightning speed.
Ancelotti won’t have forgotten Roma’s trouncing on this very stage and will want
to see Ronaldo locked down by the backs and forced to channel his efforts
through a congested middle rather than the flanks that he thrives on.
It will be interesting to see if Maldini’s experience can be used to neutralise
the Red Devil number 7’s stopovers and sprints, but whatever the case, the
veteran’s presence will help calm rearguard jitters with the 7-1 sacking of Rome
still bleeping like a smoke alarm.
The midfield will need to mesh tightly with the back four, as everybody knows
and expects, but the key will be in how Ancelotti plays Seedorf. It seems
unlikely that he’ll risk the number 10 being pushed up too far, but won’t want
Clarence far from the fray either given United’s makeshift defense.