Rooney rides to Man Utd rescue
Sir Alex Ferguson described the closing stages of Manchester United's first win at the San Siro as "a carnival". It is unlikely his words will have been as benevolent behind closed doors.
It is churlish to downgrade the scale of United's achievement in beating AC Milan in their own formidable surroundings - but surprisingly a landmark result that helped Ferguson create another piece of history cannot be greeted with complete satisfaction.
Wayne Rooney showcased his world-class talent to put United in sight of the last eight of the Champions League, but the discomfort caused by a fading and unremarkable Milan side was an obvious cause for concern.
Ferguson's pleasure will be tempered by the defensive flaws and carelessness in possession that moved him to bound to the touchline in the first half and produce his infamous "hairdryer" in public, with Jonny Evans the unfortunate victim.
Man Utd are in pole position to reach the next round thanks to Rooney. Photograph: Getty
Milan let United escape by missing a succession of opportunities - and Ferguson will be grimly aware other opponents may not be so generous should they progress.
United needed a major piece of good fortune to get back on an even keel after Ronaldinho's deflected early goal, with Paul Scholes levelling courtesy of his standing foot after a swing and a miss at Darren Fletcher's cross.
The great consolation and comfort for United is that even if they are struggling at the back they have Rooney at the front. And once again he produced when it mattered.
He combined power and intelligent movement to terrorise the Milan defence after the break and score with two headers - a perceived former weakness in his game that has now been spectacularly addressed.
It was symptomatic of United's two-faced display in victory that even with Milan at their mercy at 3-1, they engineered a way of handing them a lifeline with Clarence Seedorf's late goal, which was then followed by bad misses from Pippo Inzaghi and Thiago Silva.
Milan were left to count the cost of their profligacy, allowing United's younger legs to take over as the Italians ran out of steam.
Michael Carrick's sending off added to the mixed emotions experienced by United. Any criticism must be placed in the context of their eventual victory, but this was a strange old evening.
Rooney was the one constant, completely overshadowing David Beckham on the night when he hoped to illustrate he can still be a force on the biggest stage. Fabio Capello was in attendance, but he will have learned nothing new about Beckham on this evidence.
Beckham's poor free-kick indirectly led to Ronaldinho's first goal, but he was literally on the margins of the game and it was no surprise when he was substituted. Will he be a serious contributor as a member of England's World Cup squad? Sorry, but I still have my doubts.
One Italian newspaper likened Beckham to a waxwork model after defeat to Inter in the Milan derby. This is both harsh and disrespectful, but there is no doubt his lack of pace and mobility might be preying on Capello's mind as he shapes his squad for South Africa.
Ronaldinho provided AC Milan's greatest threat. Photograph: AP
No such worries about Rooney, other than the fears presumably shared by Ferguson and Capello that he may pick up an injury. This was more confirmation that he is now close to being the complete attacking footballer.
United found heroes elsewhere in goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who produced sound work when required and Darren Fletcher, who is almost the identikit modern midfielder and set up two goals.
Nani continues to puzzle and his wastefulness in good positions was placed into sharp relief when Antonio Valencia's first contribution as his replacement was to provide the perfect cross for Rooney's opening goal.
United are in prime position to progress, but the realist in Ferguson will tell him that they enjoyed good fortune in the San Siro, a commodity that has not been in huge supply on their previous visits.
And to beat AC Milan in Italy when not at your best shows the in-built reserves of resilience United can call on in times of trouble. It is a wonderful quality to have - and history tells us United have got it in abundance.
It got them through on Wednesday and makes them huge favourites to move into the quarter-finals. Ferguson will hope, however, that United do not produce another "carnival" of this kind or they might just pay a heavy price.