By Alex O'Henley at Old Trafford
In the end, Manchester United FC manager Sir Alex Ferguson opted for the vim and vigour of youth, handing Wayne Rooney the responsibility of leading the attack against the Italian champions while the more experienced Ruud van Nistelrooij was left to cool his heels on the substitutes' bench.
Sir Alex had spent the days before this game pondering whether or not to start with the prolific Dutch striker, the scorer of 36 goals in 37 games for United in the UEFA Champions League, following his recovery from a calf injury that had kept him out of action for the past three months. As it turned out, a first-team training bib for Van Nistelrooij in United's final training session had been nothing more than another of Ferguson's notorious mind games designed to fox his counterpart Carlo Ancelotti.
So Rooney, the boy wonder, started at the apex of the attack with Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo supporting from the flanks, while the prolific Dutchman was kept in reserve should his talismanic qualities be required for a decisive intervention in the final stages. Faced with the combined defensive might of Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta, Rooney struggled to make an impression in the opening stages. A free-kick that bounced harmlessly off the defensive wall was his only direct attempt at goal in the first half hour, but as the half developed so did Rooney's influence.
Goals are the normal currency of choice for the 19-year-old, yet there is more than raw power to his play as AC Milan discovered here. With half-time approaching Rooney showed great intelligence to drag Maldini wide, allowing Ronaldo to play Quinton Fortune through on goal and, but for a slight hesitation, the South African midfield player might have broken the deadlock. Minutes later the striker showed more good vision, dropping off the Milan captain before lifting a reverse pass over Maldini's head for the on-rushing Giggs who was only denied by the alertness of goalkeeper Dida.
Van Nistelrooij introduction
Rooney was peripheral at the start of the second half as the visitors enjoyed a period of sustained pressure, and with just over an hour gone, Ferguson opted for Plan B and summoned Van Nistelrooij from the bench. The scene was set for the prolific forward to score a trademark winner, but instead it was another striker that stole the headlines.
Hernán Crespo did not enjoy a productive time at Chelsea FC last season, but his loan move to Milan this term has rekindled both his form and his goalscoring prowess. The Argentinian striker had already served warning on United with two close efforts midway through the second half and it was a case of third-time lucky when he pounced on a loose ball on 78 minutes and fired a left-footed shot into the roof of the net.
For once Rooney and Van Nistelrooij were put in the shade and the spotlight was firmly on Crespo, who had proved a point to his doubters and put Milan in the driving seat for a place in the quarter-finals.
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