United: Different class
United prove themselves new aristocrats of Europe with humiliation of Milan
IF there was one thing that mattered almost as much as victory for Manchester United's supporters last night it was that the job got done quickly.
Only then could attention move on to other objectives: the preservation of Wayne Rooney; the adulation of David Beckham; the powerful condemnation of the Glazer regime.
With the main drama long since resolved and so many subplots unfolding around Old Trafford, it was going to take something special to bring the focus back on to centre stage, but United managed it with a comprehensive rout of one of the great names in European football, albeit an AC Milan team who do not bear comparison to their illustrious predecessors.
This was a humiliation for Milan. They will reflect that the tie was lost in the first leg at San Siro, where they dominated for long periods only to lose 3-2, but they were overwhelmed last night by a United team who, without hitting top gear, proved to be in a different class -- Rooney leading the way with another two goals.
How sick Milan must be of the sight of him. By the time that Rooney took his leave midway through the second half, to great applause, Beckham had arrived to similar acclaim, doing his best to restore a little pride to a demoralised Milan team.
Beckham had his moments -- a few of those trademark crosses, a resounding volley that was well saved by Edwin van der Sar -- but this was all about United, who had taken a 3-0 lead when Paul Scholes set up Park Ji Sung for a low shot on the hour and then scored a memorable fourth when Rafael Da Silva, a substitute, picked out the unmarked Darren Fletcher for a header with three minutes remaining.
For all Alex Ferguson's talk about the "incredible experience" of this Milan side, it was hard, upon scrutinising the teamsheet, to conclude that the Italian side had the upper hand in this regard.
While Milan began with Beckham and Clarence Seedorf on the substitutes' bench, United had a 39-year-old in goal, a 35-year-old at right back and a 35-year-old in midfield -- Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Scholes respectively -- who have no fewer than 375 appearances to their name.
So either the United manager is trying to pull the wool over people's eyes or he does not realise that Paolo Maldini and Cafu have retired.
There is a historical indulgence at United of youthful exuberance -- one that Ferguson reflected in selecting Rafael, the raw Brazilian full-back, for the first leg at San Siro -- but it was no surprise that the manager opted for the experience of Neville last night with a view to containing the mercurial threat of Ronaldinho.
That must have been the prime objective for Neville, but he seemed determined to take every opportunity, a little like the aforementioned Cafu, to show that age is no barrier to a full-back's ability to get forward.
In the third minute he cut in from the right and surprised Christian Abbiati, the Milan goalkeeper, with a left-foot shot that flew just over the crossbar. Ronaldinho, tellingly, was nowhere to be seen, ensuring that, in Neville, United had an extra man every time they attacked down that flank.
When United's opening goal came, in the 13th minute, its provenance was not the surprise that it might have seemed when Neville had first galloped forward. The full-back took a touch to compose himself and delivered a cross, the quality of which Beckham would be proud.
Rooney, once again showing the anticipation and the timing that has suddenly made him a prolific goalscorer, got to the ball before Daniele Bonera and sent his header beyond the unconvincing Abbiati.
The goal was just what United needed. They had made an enterprising start, with Rooney going close in the third minute and Darren Fletcher snapping into tackles with characteristic zeal, but they had also shown signs of sloppiness during the opening exchanges.
Ronaldinho had sent a header inches wide of the goal in the eighth minute, after Nani carelessly knocked on Andrea Pirlo's free-kick, while Patrice Evra was fortunate that his lapse moments later was not punished by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a forward who appears bereft of confidence since he left Ajax for Real Madrid and now Milan.
When Leonardo sent on Seedorf at the interval, it was in the knowledge that Milan needed to respond quickly to have the slightest hope. What happened instead, with their defence all at sea after the half-time reshuffle, was a United goal.
Thiago Silva, out of his comfort zone on the right-hand side, lost possession to Nani, who threaded a sublime pass with the outside of his right boot, allowing Rooney to tuck a simple shot past Abbiati at the Stretford End.
Park, picked out by Scholes in a crowded penalty area, scored a deserved goal on the hour and Fletcher put his name on the scoresheet in the final minutes.
Between times, much of the focus was on Beckham, who, never one to eschew a photo opportunity, disappeared down the tunnel wearing a green and gold scarf, the symbol of the anti-Glazer protest.
Really, though, this was all about United.
On a night when Real Madrid tumbled out of the Champions League at the first knockout stage yet again, United march on, and Cristiano Ronaldo might be left to wonder whether, like Beckham, he will be forced to reflect that his best days were those he spent at Old Trafford.