Amidst protests over Malcolm Glazer’s ownership of the club, Manchester United progressed into the quarter-finals of the Champions League with consummate ease, winning 4-0 against Leonardo’s A. C. Milan and 7-2 on aggregate. This was a game not so much about the quality of the Red Devils but one of the worst performances I have ever seen from a supposedly top European side in the world’s premier club competition.
The distinct lack of urgency from Milan, knowing that before a ball was even kicked they needed to score twice to make the next round was thoroughly frustrating to say the least. Centre-half Alessandro Nesta, experienced full-back Massimo Oddo and young Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato were admittedly all missing, but only substitute David Beckham can feel like he performed to a level anywhere near acceptable in the game at Old Trafford. Daniele Bonera looked even more inept in the heart of defence than at right-back, getting nowhere near the in-form Wayne Rooney who headed in a Gary Neville cross in the opening quarter of an hour. At least he was taken off at half-time!
Massimo Ambrosini, successor to Paolo Maldini as captain of the Rossoneri, is the perfect example of why the armband should not go to a player just because he has been at the club the longest, which is often the case in Italy. He never picked out a forward pass and scarcely made a tackle, something he is supposedly renowned for. Gennaro Gattuso must be baffled as to why he continues to be overlooked. The Milan full-backs, who both like to get forward, failed to provide from wide areas and offered no protection to their colleagues at the back; Ignazio Abate showed how inexperienced and overrated he is and Marek Jankulovski looked over the hill.
Ronaldinho barely figured in the game, whilst Marco Borriello displayed that he is equally useless out wide than as the main striker. Centre-forward Klaas-Jan Huntelaar continues to suffer from a lack of confidence and form, spurning a good chance early on due to a first touch that was so heavy you would have thought he was wearing concrete boots. Brazilian centre-half Thiago Silva didn’t have a glittering game either and neither did former Arsenal midfielder Mathieu Flamini. Goalkeeper Christian Abbiati only added to his eccentric reputation and his mania for fisting the ball.
Of the XI that started Andrea Pirlo probably had the best game, but much like substitute Clarence Seedorf he tried to force the play through the middle of the park, making it easy for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Also off the bench came Pippo Inzaghi who contributed three offsides before missing a great chance to get a consolation for Milan near the end.
Nobody can doubt the contribution Leonardo has made to the club over a decade as player, scout, coach and manager, yet there is no doubt his tactics were atrocious and naive for a side coming into the second leg of a knockout competition needing to score goals. A thoroughly nice man who had an exemplary career on the pitch, aside from one moment of madness, but he is simply not motivating his players in big matches. There was nobody supporting Huntelaar from the centre of midfield. The overall performance has for me rang alarm bells over the largely ageing squad and youngsters that might look good in the academy but fail to translate that form into a high-profile match. The tempo was wrong for a side chasing the tie, almost casual and non-committed at times. The Italian style of play is going to have to adapt to other approaches if its players cannot perform properly.
This is not to take anything away from Manchester United who still had put the ball back in the net. Rooney’s continuing purple patch is splendid news for England fans with the World Cup getting sooner and sooner. They thoroughly deserved to make it to the quarter-finals and no team will want to draw last season’s beaten finalists.