Clinical finishing gives United edge
Last year, if you had told me a team with Jonny Evans, Ji-Sung Park and Darren Fletcher would knock off AC Milan, in Milan, no less, I would have told you to seek treatment.
Tonight, at the San Siro, a Manchester United team stocked with the aforementioned squad players did just that, bouncing AC Milan 3-2 to take an enormous step towards the quarterfinal round.
It’s a cliché, but the facts tonight were as plain as the anguish on Milan coach Leonardo’s face post-game. This was a game that AC Milan tossed away, one in which golden chances went begging, and another reminder that the old European order is dissolving under a cast of muscle and money.
Had AC Milan capitalized on the wondrous play of Ronaldinho, more fully exploited the callowness of Evans and his inept compatriot Rafael, and truly stretched a United midfield that was begging to be broken for long stretches, this game could have been as easy for the home side as was Ronaldinho’s insouciant opener.
Then, playing a hopeful ball out of the back which Patrice Evra helpfully placed at the Brazilian’s feet, Ronaldinho’s scorching volley seemed to set the tone, in only the third minute of play, no less.
The profligate are often punished, and few fans could watch this match and not come away from the impression that while United are clearly a dogged side, that it was the Milanese who choked.
Credit Edwin van der Saar, who turned in a characteristically yeoman performance in front of a cheesecloth back line. Attempt after attempt either bored into the Dutchman’s body, or pinged off his long fingers, safely away from danger.
Also credit the attitude that fires this Manchester United side. It may not impress on paper, but United is making a habit of humiliating their supposed betters.
Is it pretty football? No, but Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick are so adept at sitting in their opponent’s jockstraps, that even the histrionic Andrea Pirlo had reason to throw up his hands in despair.
The Red Devils gave no space and no quarter despite a three-pronged assault that forced United’s best player of late, Nani, to an early shower after he was forced to spend an inordinate amount of time covering for Rafael.
But recognize that this was a match won and lost in midfield, and this in a game where neither team were fully able to assert control of the most vital 1/3 of the pitch. Both teams seemed rattled — United by skill, Milan by uncompromising tackles — and this allowed each side ample time to hoist the ball forward.
In fact, it was one such breakdown that allowed United to level on a pure fluke. Fletcher was allowed to collect and run to the byeline, crossing into Scholes, who mishit the ball off the post past Dida.
There were no such flukes later on from Wayne Rooney, whose two headers were magic. He simply couldn’t be contained on the first, a floater from sub Valencia. On the second, Fletcher watched as Milan stopped, allowing the Scotsman to dink the ball to the wide-open striker.
Clarence Seedorf’s lovely late goal energized a heads-down Milan side late, but as Arsenal have learned, beauty counts for nothing if you cannot win matches. Tonight, Milan were the beautiful side, and they were justly second-best.
Now, Milan must head to Old Trafford with the knowledge that they lack the backbone to run shoulder-to-shoulder for 90 minutes. It’s hard to think on the evidence of tonight that they are not headed out of the European Cup, and they have only themselves to blame.
The lone blemish on the night? Carrick’s curious ejection.
The other match was in France, where Lyon looked to extend their home dominance against a Real Madrid side that should be better than it truly is. Lyon approached the game with a safety-first start, Cris and Boumsong anchoring the back and everyone dropping quickly to deny Real Madrid time and space.
It was clear from the start that the French side wanted their famous rivals to have to put together passes in order to create.
A fabulous Makoun strike opened the second half and proved the difference on the night. The scorer's drive curled into the top left hand corner from 26 yards as the Madrid defense backed off and gave the runner too many options in the 47th minute.
The lead did not change the Lyon game plan, however. They continued to press hard in midfield, often getting two defenders to the ball to keep Real Madrid from getting into its smooth attacking rhythm. The work rate of men like Reveillere, Toulalan and Cissokho on defense was typical on a night when the home team refused to be drawn into watching the Galacticos weave pretty patterns.
At the other end, Real Madrid was willing to concede space wide, especially on the right where Govou had the early beating of Marcelo, but to little effect. Sergio Ramos was the confident cover out of the central defense and Govou's crosses off his early possession were ineffective.
Cristiano Ronaldo - wearing almost luminescent yellow boots as if no one would otherwise notice him - was a clear danger with his passes, once finding Higuain nearly through down the middle and playing a roving game across the midfield to fit himself into the most effective positions.
Yet for stretches, neither team was able to get its obvious danger men — Lisandro Lopez and Kaka — into clear chance positions because there was never much room for a legitimate striker within sight of goal. That no-risk mentality meant a thoughtful pace — some might call it “boring” — as both sides showed more speed racing back into cover than when trying to push forward.
Karim Benzema's appearance in the 64th minute brought applause from his former supporters, but it did not spark Real Madrid nor alter the fundamental nature of the contest. Lyon was the team more willing to open up until very late, but failure to finish - particularly very good chances from Cissokho and Lisandro - extended the visitors a lifeline they perhaps are fortunate to have.
Lyon did keep Real from getting an away goal, but they probably will feel they should be further in front for the return. Late on, when tired legs allowed the match to become stretched, there were enough reminders of the danger that the French will face on that night.
Still, this was not a convincing Real Madrid performance. Xabi Alonso could not influence the contest in midfield and the occasional flash from Kaka and Ronaldo was just that.
Lyon has traveled well enough to be confident, especially if they can maintain their defensive composure as they did this night. Their back four certainly will sleep well tonight, having run down everything the Spaniards could contrive when they finally did look serious about attacking in the final quarter-hour.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the Champions League and European football.