Obviously, my focus is on Liverpool’s tie with Chelsea on Wednesday, but the other semi-final match-up, between Manchester United and AC Milan, takes place tomorrow.
The first leg is at Old Trafford, which should be to United’s benefit. You never like having the second leg away from home, but in this case it should give United the chance to assert themselves in the round. Despite Milan’s pedigree, United should and will be favored in this match. If they do the business and come away with an advantage, it will position them nicely to do what they must in Italy. And given United’s supporter trouble in Rome, it’s probably for the best they don’t start the semi-final in Italy, as it could pre-occupy the minds of those at the club -- fans, players and staff.
Given United’s play in all competitions, they’ll be the all-around favorites as well. First place in the league, in the FA Cup final, and in the last four of Europe; it’s an impressive season for a team that appeared content with their lone trophy from the Carling Cup last year. On the other hand, Milan hasn’t recovered from the effects of deducted points and the corruption scandal, and currently sits 4th in Serie A, which would be their lowest league finish since 01-02.
United also has a number of attacking players that will strike fear in the Milan side. What more can be said about Cristiano Ronaldo’s season? The PFA Player of the Year and Young Player double will be the first of many individual trophies the 22 year old will pick up this summer. And Rooney, Ronaldo, Giggs, Scholes, and Carrick are no slouches either. While Maldini, Nesta, Costacurta, and Kaladze have mountains of European experience, they aren’t getting any younger or faster (it’s required to question the stamina and youth of Milan’s defense anytime they’re written about).
However, AC Milan also has a player preeminent among others: Kaka. He will be the key to everything Milan does offensively. I hate to use Liverpool to try and explain how I think the game could go, but bear with me. Kaka was the reason Milan went 3-0 up in the first half of the Champions League semi-final. With Liverpool lining up with an attacking squad, there was no one to mark Kaka, who loves to operate in the space between the midfield and defense. For 45 minutes, he cut through Liverpool with ease. However, when Didi Hamann came on in the second half and sat in front of the back four, that space wasn’t there anymore. And Milan didn’t score again.
United doesn’t have any player to fill that role. Neither Carrick nor Scholes, United’s starting central midfielders, can or will do it. Kaka should have the space he so loves. And United will be living dangerously the entire time. Granted, Manchester plays a different style of football than most; their defense is their attack. But without someone to mark Kaka, and with the entire United first team defense probably out through injury as well, they will have to be ready to be challenged.
In spite of that warning, I still expect United to take a lead to Milan. In fact, any away goal that Milan picks up will be a bonus. I love to take shots, and have to question parts of their game, but United is a very good team playing at a very high level. And so far this season, they've shown that they can repeat their league form in Europe, which is a very scary prospect and without recent precedent. Milan will have to be at their bests to compete.