By Paolo Menicucci
AC Milan are on course to reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League after Hernán Crespo pounced on an error by Manchester United FC goalkeeper Roy Carroll to give his side a deserved 1-0 first-leg victory at Old Trafford.
The Northern Irish international paid a heavy price for his mistake. Sir Alex Ferguson recalled Tim Howard against Portsmouth FC three days later and he is expected to stick with the American for the return leg in Milan. "When you get pressure from the media and that sort of attention, sometimes it's better to take the player out the team," said the United manager. "It was time to see how Tim does again, so we can be sure about who will play in Milan."
But Howard too has struggled in the Champions League this season and has made just one appearance since conceding a soft goal against Olympique Lyonnais on Matchday 1. In contrast, as Sir Alex wrestles with his goalkeeping dilemma, Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti has no doubts over his No1, Dida.
The 31-year-old Brazilian has established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the world over the past three seasons, but he knows just how it feels to make a costly mistake. Carroll and Howard can draw inspiration from his reaction to it. Against Leeds United AFC during Milan's 2000/01 Champions League campaign the little-known Brazilian, in his first season at the club, dropped the ball into his own goal after saving Lee Bowyer's innocuous last-minute shot. It cost Milan the match and Dida his place in the side.
"If I made that error now, everything would be much easier for me because I've already proved what I can do.
A mistake is only a mistake," he said. "It was a different situation in those days because it was one of my first games with Milan and nobody knew me. Many people jumped to label me a very bad goalkeeper."
It was the beginning of a very difficult period for Dida, who was later suspended for using a false Portuguese passport to gain European Union status. "I never lost my confidence despite that mistake, and despite the problem with the passport," Dida said. "I continued to train hard and learn as much as I could. I have been lucky to work with a lot of good coaches. I was just waiting for another chance to prove I could play in a team like Milan." That chance came in a Champions League qualifying game against FC Slovan Liberec in August 2002.
Milan defeated the Czech side on away goals, the first hurdle on a run to the final where they defeated Juventus FC on penalties. Dida was the star of the show. "I was mentally ready to play against Liberec and I played well," Dida said. "After that I didn't look back. We got to the Champions League final and I saved a few penalties. Then everybody knew me."
Dida was excellent again last season when Milan won the Scudetto, and is now considered the best goalkeeper in Serie A, alongside Juve's Gianluigi Buffon. The Brazilian is in superb form and has conceded just one goal in his past five appearances. How Howard and Carroll would like to put a run like that behind them. Tuesday would be the perfect time to start, and either, given the chance, will hope to grab it - preferably with a safe pair of hands.
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