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Talk of youthful brilliance typically dominates the build-up to any match involving Manchester United FC, yet Sir Alex Ferguson is determined to stress the importance of his oldest player, Edwin van der Sar, ahead of the visit of AC Milan for the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final.
Cristiano Ronaldo was just ten years old and Wayne Rooney five months short of that mark when Van der Sar enjoyed his finest moment in football - keeping a clean sheet in Vienna as AFC Ajax overcame Milan 1-0 to lift the European Champion Clubs' Cup for a fourth time. The 36-year-old, Ryan Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjær are the only players available to United to have triumphed in this competition – dwarfed by eleven in the Rossoneri ranks – and Sir Alex is relying on another dependable performance from the Dutchman at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
"His personality and experience, particularly when we were changing the team to what it is now, are vital," the manager said. "He's proved that again this season, his form has been outstanding, but most importantly he's been in this position before in the Champions League and for the ones who've never been there in the dressing room, that's a help." Van der Sar himself notes there are "similarities" between Ajax's success 12 years ago - the average age of Louis van Gaal's team of homegrown tyros being 23 – and United's own bid for glory in Athens, yet he believes the competition remains wide open.
"We have enough quality but you can say that about all four teams in the semi-finals – everyone has to be at their best and show it on the pitch," he said. Van der Sar will certainly know about the danger posed by a Milan side coached by a man he is all too familiar with, Carlo Ancelotti. It was Ancelotti who lured him away from Ajax, to join Juventus in 1999. "I was with Ancelotti for two years at Juventus, we always had a good relationship and stay in touch," said the goalkeeper, adding with a tinge of regret: "We both didn't leave very happily, for differing reasons."
Push for honours
Three years without a Scudetto rendered Ancelotti's position in Turin untenable, while the arrival of Fabio Capello and €53m Italy No1 Gianluigi Buffon sparked Van der Sar's exit. Four years without a trophy followed at Fulham FC, before Sir Alex finally signed a worthy heir to Peter Schmeichel in summer 2005. The keeper helped United win the League Cup in 2006 – his first silverware since 1999 – but he hopes to be the recipient of more prestigious prizes this term. The Premiership and FA Cup are the first on offer though a trip to Athens in the UEFA Champions League would undoubtedly be a dream finale.
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