If there is a match to truly embody the spirit of the UEFA Champions League, Milan’s 1st leg Semi Final visit to the Theater of Dreams fits the bill like few others.
24th April, 2007 is a date few Rossoneri or Manchester United fans can forget.
A match that possessed the likes of a prime Ricardo Kakà, an enigmatic Cristiano Ronaldo, a budding Wayne Rooney, the legendary Edwin Van Der Sar and midfield kingpin Andrea Pirlo, among many other greats – all in the prime of their footballing powers.
Milan as a club were still making an effort to get over the ghosts of Istanbul from two years earlier. United’s blood-rivals Liverpool had inflicted insurmountable damage in the Champions League final, in what is to this date touted as one of football’s greatest matches ever.
Meanwhile, Manchester United were left extremely undone in the previous Champions League season as they ended up behind Villareal, Benfica and Lille in fourth position in Group D. They were beaten or drawn in all but one of their group stage matches – a narrow 2-1 victory over Benfica at Old Trafford their only consolation.
The two heavyweights prepared to meet only for the seventh time in their glorious histories, having long been the cream of Europe’s most magnificently decorated clubs.
74,000 odd spectators at Old Trafford were about to witness a historic match-up that to this day is remembered for Kakà’s masterpiece showing and Rooney’s final minute winner.
Two legendary managers in Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti deployed contrasting formations but with similar intent – to inflict attacking damage and nullify midfield threats. But little did they know that the players in the park were going to be anything but quiet on the night.
Ancelotti pitched a five-man midfield with Kakà functioning as the playmaker and Alberto Gilardino as the No. 9. Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta operated oversaw defensive operations, guarded by the ever-present Andrea Pirlo and his hard-headed midfield men, including Gennaro Gattuso. Sir Alex’s 4-3-3 posed a different kind of threat, with Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo as the front three, fed by Paul Scholes as the main man in midfield.
A set-piece misadventure propelled Manchester United into an early lead. Ryan Giggs’ corner delivery met Ronaldo’s head, before Brazilian goalkeeper Dida first saved it and then eventually deflected the ball into his own net. An untidy lead, but a goal nonetheless.
With Old Trafford buzzing, what was about to be witnessed in the next 40 minutes or so was an exquisite display of trequartista football by one man – Ricardo Kakà.
In the 21st minute, Clarence Seedorf slotted a cool pass to Kakà in midfield. With one touch, the ex-Sao Paulo playmaker accelerated past three United players and into the left flank of the penalty area, before unleashing a left-footed finish into the bottom right corner, leaving Van Der Sar helpless.
But if Kakà’s first goal was spectacular, the next one was pure art.
With neither team finding any kind of attacking footing as the minutes rolled by, Dida’s goal-kick found Kakà in United’s uncharted half. Seeking the opportunity, the Brazilian drove the ball ahead with his head past Darren Fletcher. It was the first of four touches – essentially a testament to Ricky’s creativity and presence of mind in the final-third. His next touch saw him lob the ball over Gabriel Heinze, erasing Fletcher completely from the picture.
What came next was pure footballing instinct – the likes of which very few players seem to possess when it matters the most. As the ball came down, and Heinze and Evra running towards it to clear it away, Kaka softly kissed the ball between the two onrushing defenders, forcing them to slam into one another. The painting was almost done.
Now effectively one-on-one against Van Der Sar’s virtuoso presence, Kaka took control of the situation smoothly and finished his move with a fourth finesse touch into the bottom right corner, once again targeting the far post. 1-2, the painting completed. Four touches is all it took to silence Old Trafford.
The first half might have belonged to Kakà, but it was Wayne Rooney who got the upper hand in the second period, which saw Maldini and Gattuso both succumb to early injuries, forcing Milan to adopt a more conservative approach.
Nonetheless, Kakà continued his masterclass, but failed to find the goal that would complete his hat trick and kill the match. Taking advantage of Milan’s goalscoring inefficiency, the hour mark saw Paul Scholes lob an inch-perfect pass to Rooney who made no mistake in drawing level from close range. Game on, it was.
The momentum was back with the home side. Wayne Rooney finally rewarded United for their persistence in the 90th minute. Ryan Giggs sent a deft through ball into the No. 8’s path, before he fiercely struck one just past Dida into the back of the net to all but kill the game.
Wayne Rooney’s brace was a cherry on top, in a game that had it all. As a jubilant Old Trafford cheered on, Kakà was hard done by in the end. Nevertheless, it was the Brazilian maestro’s display in the second leg at the Rossoneri‘s football cathedral that earned them a 3-0 win – forever etching him in the ‘greatest Champions League one-man performances over two legs’ list.
Milan went on to win the continental championship in the final against Liverpool in Athens, partly making peace with the demons of Istanbul.
April 24, 2007 – Champions League 2006-2007 Semi Final
MANCHESTER UNITED-MILAN 3-2
SCORER: 5′ Cristiano Ronaldo (MU), 22′ Kaka (Mi), 37′ Kaka (Mi), 59′ Rooney (MU), 90′ Rooney (MU)
|MANCHESTER UNITED (4-3-3): Van der Sar; O’Shea, Brown, Heintze, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes; Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs (Kuszczak, Richardson, Lee, Smith, Eagles, Solskjaer, Dong) Coach: Ferguson
|MILAN (4-3-2-1): Dida; Oddo, Nesta, Maldini (46′ Bonera), Jankulovski; Ambrosini, Pirlo, Gattuso (53′ Brocchi); Kakà, Seedorf; Gilardino (84′ Gourcuff) (Kalac, Favalli, Cafu, F. Inzaghi) Coach: Ancelotti
REFEREE: Vassaras (Greece)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Evra, Giggs (MU), Kakà, Bonera (Mi)
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