They may joke about sharing a glass of red win tomorrow as they always have done in previous encounters – but make no mistakes – tomorrow is an enormous game for both teams to make a claim for the strongest team in the land. Fergie and Chelsea’s manager Carlo Ancelotti have met before – when United played Juventus and AC Milan – with the Italian having a better record than the gaffer.
United met Juventus in the April of 1999, having overcome one of the other big three Italian teams in the previous round (Inter Milan). The first round was at Old Trafford and to be honest Juevntus played us off the park – with Zidane, Conte and Davids starring. Snapping at the heels of a strong United midfield – the Turin club took the lead before a late goal from Ryan Giggs gave United some hope – however, having watched United crash out of Europe to Dortmund and Monaco the previous two seasons – lets say I was filled with confidence that we’d make the final.
We all know what followed in Turin and in my opinion it was the finest Manchester United performance i’d ever seen – especially from our skipper. Being the first club to win on Italian soil, having been 2-0 down to a club who had appeared in three of the last Champions League finals was quite simply phenomenal. Ancelotti was never a popular choice for the Old Lady due to his Milan ties and quite simply he was following an impossible task of surpassing Marcello Lippi. As we all know we went on to win the European Cup and Ferguson had outwitted the young coach – however, in time, Ancelotti would get one up on Ferguson.
Fast forward to February 2005 and United were drawn against AC Milan in the last sixteen of the Champions League. Eagerly anticipating the game due to the fact that I’d always seen Milan as one of the true giants of European Football. Remembering players such as Van Basten, Savićević, Baresi and Ruud Gullit – I was really looking forward to seeing how a Manchester United side (that was in transition) would fare against the then six times champions of Europe.
In fairness, we were never in the contest. Roy Carroll produced a howler for Hernan Crespo to score – whilst in the away leg Crespo scored again – this time with a header past the trailing Tim Howard. United were well beaten – and looking at the subs who came on that night – Smith and Fortune – United didn’t really have the strength and depth to compete. Combine this with an on going ankle injury to Ruud Van Nistelrooy and the inexperience of Ronaldo and Rooney – it wasn’t a major surprise that we struggled against a team consisting of Seedorf, Nesta, Cafu and the brilliant Maldini.
I always remember a quote from Ferguson as he watched Milan beat Bayern Munich two years later in the semi final of the competition. We had already booked our place in the semi final and were awaiting the outcome of the second leg in Munich. If memory serves me right – the Germans nicked a 2-2 draw at the San Siro and were slight favourites to venture on. However, Fillipo Inzaghi had other ideas and scored a brace to send the Rossoneri through. The more I think about it – Inzaghi is one of the best goal poachers i’ve ever seen. Terrible technically on the ball – but simply superb in front of goal. I remember watching that game on the TV and thinking to myself ‘he is the worst player on the park’ – before he went on and scored two goals – assisted by the excellent Seedorf. Milan made it through to the semi-finals for a Ferguson vs. Ancelotti round three match.
United against Milan in the spring of 2007 was going to be different from the one two years previous. Gone were the likes of Fortune and Carroll and in were Patrice Evra, Gabriel Henize and a more experienced Wayne Rooney. I honestly thought we had a great chance of reaching the final in Athens – but did have one concern i n my mind – what else did Milan have to play for? They were miles behind in Serie A, out of the domestic cup and simply had all their eggs in one basket, whereas we were fighting it out with Chelsea in the league and FA Cup – something had to give I thought.
United started off with a makeshift defense with O’Shea, Brown, Henize and Evra – but it was Ronaldo who scored with a header. Unfortunately that was Ronaldo’s one and only contribution to the tie as he was overshadowed by the brillian Brazilian Kaka – whom he battled out the Ballon D’or at the end of the season. What followed wouldn’t have looked out of place at a circus. Kaka scored two goals, one a superbly left footed shot beating Van Der Sar with ease – the other a calamity smash from Patrice Evra and serial jester Gabriel Henize – resulting in a one on one for Kaka – which he duly slotted away. The second half saw United fight back – with two Rooney goals – one after a brilliant scoop by Paul Scholes, the other an early shot from the edge at the box right at the depth beating Dida. We had one foot in the final – but the two Kaka goals meant there was little separating the teams going into th game at the Giuseppe Meazza.
What happened in that game – no red wants to remember. The pouring rain smashing on to the Milanese turf epitomised the feeling towards the occasion. Disappointment, embarrassment and the realisation we would not be going to Greece – considering Liverpool at qualified the night before. However, looking at the facts – United beat Everton 4-2 the weekend previous after a grueling encounter, which saw us fight back from 2-0 down. Milan on the other hand – rested their entire team against Udinese – in preparation for the match against United. No excuses – we were the well beaten – but I think the analysis as to why a team lost should go deeper than the one game that decided the match. Would United have won the League title that season and got to the FA Cup final – both against a superb Chelsea team – if they had put their eggs in one basket? I doubt it – but it was a learning curve for the next season – which saw both Ferdinand and Vidic playing consistently in the latter stages.
Forgetting the Community shield and concentrating on the major European ties – Ferguson’s record against Ancelotti reads – played 6, won 2, drawn 1 and lost 3. I don’t think it is a bad record due to the points I have raised within this blog entry – but i’m sure the gaffer will be keen to get one over on Ancelotti, especially considering the pain of the 3-0 defeat. Ancelotti has brought a decent brand of football to the Bridge after the guidance of the exceptional Guus Hiddink. Frank Lampard is having a great season and he’s even got Deco playing again. Joe Cole is good addition to the side – and will want to prove something tomorrow if he gets on. The 5th of November is usually the night were fireworks go off – however, I expect tomorrow – we’ll see the best of the bunch.