Manchester United FC's young guns face their biggest test yet in the shape of Tuesday's semi-final against the continent's most seasoned campaigners, AC Milan.
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Forty-eight hours after Cristiano Ronaldo's coronation as Player of the Year in England, Manchester United FC's treble-chasing young guns face their biggest test yet this term in the shape of Tuesday's UEFA Champions League semi-final against the continent's most seasoned campaigners, AC Milan.
Youth v experience
For a team spearheaded by Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, this meeting with a Milan side most likely featuring six thirtysomethings could be easily caricatured as a confrontation between youth and experience. After all, when visiting captain Paolo Maldini made his European debut in 1985, Ronaldo was seven months old and Rooney still kicking inside his mother's stomach. But while United have undoubtedly matured since suffering 1-0 home-and-away losses to Milan in the first knockout round in 2005, the Rossoneri's recent form – Saturday's 3-1 home victory over Cagliari Calcio was their fifth in succession – hardly hints at an ageing squad staggering down the season's final straight.
An intriguing contest beckons and United manager Sir Alex Ferguson suggests there could be little to choose between the pair. "I sometimes look at our team and wish we had more experience in certain situations, but on the other hand the future lies with younger players. Maldini leaves a legacy; young players like Rooney and Ronaldo give you a future, so it's difficult to say which is best at this moment in time." Ronaldo, voted both Player and Young Player of the Year by his Premiership peers, offers thrilling evidence in favour of the former, but Sir Alex appreciates the strength of opponents playing their fourth UEFA Champions League semi-final in five campaigns. "You can't deny that type of experience," he said, singling out Maldini, whom he described as his favourite European player of the last 15 years.
'Best in world'
Of course, Milan have more than experience on their side. In Kaká they boast the tournament's seven-goal leading scorer – and a player who, for his coach Carlo Ancelotti, rivals Ronaldo for the "best in the world" tag presently being applied to the Portuguese by Sir Alex among others. Asked his thoughts on this potentially decisive subplot, Ancelotti said: "I agree that they are among the best players in the world at the moment but it is extremely difficult to say who is the best. That will come down to who can decide the outcome of the game."
Ancelotti enjoyed a triumphant night at Old Trafford in the 2003 UEFA Champions League final and his hopes of another glorious visit should be boosted by the return of goalkeeper Dida from a shoulder problem. United, by contrast, have an ever-lengthening absentee list. Although Patrice Evra is available again, Rio Ferdinand joined fellow defenders Gary Neville and Nemanja Vidić on the sidelines by injuring his groin in Saturday's 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough FC. "There are going to be some big players missing but the important thing is not to focus on that and to focus on imposing our game as we managed a couple of years ago," said Ancelotti.
Milan have come out on top in their three previous two-legged encounters with United and have won nine of eleven semi-finals in Europe's élite competition – compared with United's two from six. However, history offers the English team one positive omen: in 1999 they overcame Italian opposition in both the quarter-final and semi-final, with Ancelotti's Juventus their latter victims. Milan will provide firmer resistance than AS Roma but Sir Alex, encouraged by the "strong spirit" in the home camp, said: "It is vital to have a go and hopefully score, to give us a real chance. The name of the game is to win and not concede a goal."