By Graham Hunter at the San Siro
Hernán Crespo struck a second-leg goal to add to the one he scored in the first to break Manchester United FC hearts and send AC Milan into the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.
The Argentina striker scored the only goal of the game at Old Trafford a fortnight ago and repeated the feat at the San Siro tonight to give his side a 2-0 aggregate success. His goal came just after the hour, a superb looping header that Tim Howard could do nothing about.
Crespo was in the side as he continues to deputise for the injured Andriy Shevchenko, and played at the apex of a three-pronged attack with Rui Costa and Kaká. Carlo Ancelotti made just one change from the victory in Manchester in the first leg, with Jaap Stam returning to the centre of the Milan defence. The Dutch international's former United colleague Gary Neville was his side's only absentee.
The English club have a disappointing record in Italy, with just a solitary win in the country, but knew that nothing other than victory would be enough after the 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford in the first leg. However, the poise and confidence the visitors displayed in the first 45 minutes did not speak of a side that was uncertain about its future in the competition.
The last time Sir Alex Ferguson's side had played a competitive game at this stadium was against FC Internazionale Milano en route to winning the 1998/99 Champions League. In that quarter-final second leg, the English side successfully protected a 2-0 first-leg lead with a 1-1 draw.
But they had a more difficult feat this evening, knowing they had to score to remain in the competition. After absorbing some early Milan pressure, Ryan Giggs almost did so on the half-hour when he latched on to Ruud van Nistelrooij's through-ball and hit a low drive past Dida that came back off the far post.
On a night when short passes under pressure, clever marking and calm nerves were key features, it was typical that a player of Giggs ilk would come to the fore and moments later, Milan's own playmaker, Kaká also hit the woodwork. The Brazilian youngster seized upon a poor piece of control by Mikaël Silvestre and blasted a volley that grazed the crossbar.
But they were rare shots at goal as United's central defence partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Silvestre were supplemented by Wes Brown and Roy Keane working overtime. The English side's composure was equalled by the Italian champions, however, as Milan's experienced rearguard comfortably dealt with Van Nistelrooij and Rooney.
It is a tactic that is well used in Serie A, absorbing pressure and then capitalising on the counterattack, and when Giggs was forced from the field to get treatment after receiving an accidental elbow from Gennaro Gattuso, Crespo had two quickfire opportunities. First he was denied a shooting opportunity with a superb last-gasp intervention from Ferdinand, before moments later he met an arcing cross with a firm header, but could not direct the effort on target.
Giggs was hurriedly replaced by Quinton Fortune, but Milan scored almost immediately. Brazilian right-back Cafu profited from room to attack down United's left and crossed for Crespo to send a header beyond the despairing Howard.
United had their opportunities to equalise on the night but the prospects of them scoring twice against a resolute Milan rearguard appeared slim. Van Nistelrooij had the best of their chances, but his lack of match sharpness after nearly three months out showed when he pulled a right-footed effort wide of the upright, and United's last chance had gone.