Kaka dazzles stars at Old Trafford
Manchester United 3-2 AC MilanAfter a week of being showered with awards, Cristiano Ronaldo discovered there is one title that may be beyond his grasp just now and Wayne Rooney demonstrated why, one day, it may be his. It has been said that the world's best player has been seen at Old Trafford this season. He has now and, on this evidence, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos, aka Kaka, is that man.
To some extent, he was upstaged by Rooney whose second-half double, including a last-minute winner, gives United an advantage to take to Milan. It provided a wonderful culmination to a breathless 90 minutes of unquestioned entertainment that may even persuade the visiting Glazers to return more often.
Yet, though Rooney and Ronaldo provided ample evidence of glorious talents, the star that shone brightest was encased in Milan's No. 22 shirt.
Manchester United lacked three members of their first-choice defence yet such was Kaka's capacity to glide into space, would their supposed superiors have fared better? Sir Alex Ferguson thought so, saying: 'We've lost two terrible goals ourselves. It was poor defending.' That, however, ignores Kaka's role in both.
His first goal, and Milan's equaliser, was an indication of why Dunga is prepared to prefer him to Ronaldinho in the Brazil side. Running off Michael Carrick, he met Clarence Seedorf's pass with a wonderful touch, far away enough to enable him to accelerate beyond Gabriel Heinze, yet permitting a perfectly calibrated finish. From an acute angle, he located the only possible place to score, across Edwin van der Sar.
If that was impressive, his second was a virtuoso strike, albeit aided by some questionable United defending. Latching on to Dida's goal kick after Darren Fletcher erred in allowing it to bounce, the Brazilian headed it away from the Scot. Then he lobbed the ball over Heinze who, along with Patrice Evra, was then wrongfooted as Kaka stroked his shot beyond van der Sar.
A wondrous hat-trick was almost completed when he volleyed Seedorf's cross narrowly over, providing the culmination to a move he had begun. Besides the technical ability to execute such skills, Kaka's movement impressed.
Carrick, retreating with him, made efforts to combat it but his deceptive pace troubled all, Heinze especially.
His movement was more economical and less extravagant than the Stretford End's pretender to the mantle of the world's premier player. Despite the slaloming, almost skipping solo runs, complete with stopovers, Ronaldo's initial impact came from his aerial ability.
When Ryan Giggs delivered an in-swinging corner, the Portuguese rose highest. Dida, excellent thereafter, was caught in a poor position and, though he got a hand to Ronaldo's header, it dropped over the despairing keeper and Heinze, attacking it with characteristic vim, caused enough confusion for the ball to cross the line.
And while Kaka won their duel, Ronaldo was far from subdued. He was within inches of a second goal to bookend the game, a whipped drive nestling in the side-netting of Dida's goal. One of the two men beaten with effortless elan was Milan's unfortunate right-back.
If there is a union of Italian full-backs, they could find common ground in a fear of Ronaldo. Roma's Christian Panucci would be joined by Massimo Oddo among the ranks of the scared. A World Cup winner was made to look a novice.
If Marek Jankulovski, on Milan's left flank, escaped comparatively unscathed, it was largely because Ronaldo spent his time elsewhere. The redoubtable Gennaro Gattuso fared better whenever the Portuguese strayed infield; no wonder Ferguson is an avowed admirer.
There was much for the United manager to enjoy, though. He said: 'It was a thrilling performance by us. The quality of our performance was very, very good. Some of our football was fantastic and in the second half we dominated. It proves we've got the quality to win this tournament. I think we've an outstanding chance now.'
Two elements of the United gameplan were crucial to their comeback. 'We said at half-time to keep playing with speed because I think that made a difference,' Ferguson explained. 'We planned to play the ball as wide as we got to try and stretch them.'
Indeed, the congestion in front of their central defenders served Milan well in the first half, when United were at their most potent on the flanks. Thereafter, their improvement manifested itself in a variety of chances. Giggs, with a curled free kick, and Carrick, with a wasteful sidefoot, were both close, while Milan were grateful for Dida's agility.
He was defeated twice by Rooney, however. The first followed a deft lobbed pass from Paul Scholes that had Ferguson reaching for the superlatives. The second, following a swift counter attack that Giggs led, was a rifled winner. It is standard procedure to fault goalkeepers beaten at their near post, but on this occasion that would be harsh. 'The winning goal is incredible,' said Ferguson. 'It was his first touch.'
Advantage United, then, and Milan have become accustomed to conceding three goals to English opposition, especially those who are capable of mounting a fightback. It has cost them the Champions League once but, with Kaka in such glorious form, it might not do so again.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Kaka - Simply superb. The performances of Rooney, Ronaldo and Seedorf meant each merit a mention, yet there could be no disputing the identity of the outstanding individual.
UNITED VERDICT: It was a night to admire their indefatigability, as well as their fitness and flair in the final third. Ferguson's decision to prefer Fletcher to Alan Smith was vindicated but defensively - and particularly with Heinze's lack of pace - they looked less secure,
MILAN VERDICT: Kaka and Seedorf look capable of unlocking any defence, yet there was cause for concern in the anonymity of Alberto Gilardino, their lone striker, and in Oddo's difficulties against Ronaldo. Gattuso and Pirlo excelled in a narrow midfield in the first half, but they may need to offer their full-backs more protection.
DEFENSIVE WORRIES: Patrice Evra is banned for the return leg. Ferguson confirmed it will come too soon for Nemanja Vidic, adding: 'We've eight days hopefully to get Rio [Ferdinand] fit.' One option is to move Fletcher into the back four but his manager, calling his fellow Scot 'outstanding' in the midfield, is reluctant to do that.