By Simon Hart at Old Trafford
Hernán Crespo's goal 12 minutes from time gave AC Milan their first win away to English opposition in European competition and put them in the driving seat to reach the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals after a well-deserved 1-0 win here tonight.
Crespo, on his return to England following an unhappy spell at Chelsea FC, scored the only goal of this absorbing first-leg tie, hammering the ball into the net after United goalkeeper Roy Carroll had spilled Clarence Seedorf's shot.
Echoes of 2003
Up to that point it had looked like we were in for a repeat of the score when Milan last visited this stadium, for the 2002/03 Champions League final when, following a defensive master-class, they beat Juventus FC on penalties.
Much of the talk beforehand had been of two returns: Ruud van Nistelrooij's from a three-month injury absence and Jaap Stam's to his former club. As it was, Van Nistelrooij started on the bench while an injury sustained in the warm-up denied Jaap Stam a start against his old club and forced a last-minute change to Milan's defensive plans.
Cafu steps in
Cafu came in at right-back with Kakha Kaladze switching to the left and Paolo Maldini joining Alessandro Nesta in the middle. As snow fell from the cold Manchester sky, Milan's players rubbed the arms of the young red-shirted mascots beside them to keep them warm, but they were in less generous mood once the game began.
Seedorf threatened a goal for the Rossoneri when he clipped the crossbar with a free-kick in the eighth minute, and for much of the opening period the Serie A side looked largely untroubled. Their accomplished ball players retained possession longer than most visitors to Old Trafford manage, albeit without asking too many questions of the home defence.
United had their moments. On ten minutes Quinton Fortune broke into the Milan area and from the left picked out Paul Scholes with a low cross. The United man's customary accuracy was missing, however, as he shot wide from ten metres. Home hopes were raised again on the half-hour when Nesta tripped Ryan Giggs on the edge of the box, earning a yellow card in the process, but Wayne Rooney drove his free-kick into the defensive wall.
Then, on 36 minutes, Cristiano Ronaldo's lightning surge from inside his own half opened up the Milan defence and he spotted Fortune racing through the middle unmarked. Stretching to reach Ronaldo's pass, however, the South African could only steer the ball past Dida's left-hand post.
Van Nistelrooij introduced
Into the second half and Milan began to commit men forward. They were almost caught out on one occasion as Giggs counterattacked with six Milan men stuck in United territory, but the Welshman's cross found only a white shirt. The home fans' cries of "Ruud" were answered when the Dutch striker replaced Ronaldo shortly after the hour to form a three-man attack with Rooney and Giggs.
Rooney found space to flash a shot over but Crespo had a better sight of goal at the other end when Seedorf threaded the ball to him inside the box. However the Argentinian's shot was deflected wide by Wes Brown.
Crespo missed an even better chance with 15 minutes remaining, flashing a close-range shot over following Kaká's cute pass. But the man in for the injured Andriy Shevchenko soon made up for that by scoring and, save for a header just wide of goal by United substitute Louis Saha and another near-miss by Van Nistelrooij, it was Milan who looked more likely to score a second goal as the clock ran down.