Belfast Telegraph

Beckham still hogs the limelight at Manchester United

IT has been seven years since David Beckham last flew from Manchester airport in a United blazer and tie.

The attire may have changed but there were still the same requests for autographs and pieces of paper thrust into his hand. The television cameras, the banal questions, the flash photographs, nothing much had changed.

Whatever he brings to AC Milan — and he had not started a game since facing United at San Siro last month — the Becks Factor was still very much in evidence at Manchester Airport. As if a Champions League fixture between Manchester United and Milan required any more stardust, then this was it.

“I would have liked to have stayed for my whole career but sometimes things aren't meant to be,” Beckham said in an interview with Match of the Day magazine before leaving for Manchester.

“I have been to three great clubs since leaving United but it would have been lovely to have stayed there like Ryan Giggs has done.

“It will be good to see Alex Ferguson again. He is a scary man but in a really good way. He has played such an important role in my life and during my time at Manchester United he was like a father figure to me.”

His last appearance at Old Trafford on a Champions League night was the evening he broke with Ferguson. It was 2003, the opponents were Real Madrid and the dominant figure was Ronaldo. Beckham had begun on the bench, as Ferguson expects him to do tonight, and watched as the Brazilian destroyed United with the kind of muscular brilliance he was capable of at his peak before leaving the field to a standing ovation.

Beckham came on to play with a verve and passion that few thought him capable of, scoring twice to turn the game into a 4-3 win, although Madrid still went through to the semi-finals on aggregate.

In the small hours at home in Alderley Edge, Beckham watched a rerun of the game on the club's television station MUTV, nursing a glass of chilled water that he almost spilled when the cameras lingered on Ferguson's reaction to his goals — which he thought were looks almost of disgust. Scary but not in a good way.

That night, Beckham became determined to quit the club he had supported since boyhood.

The rift with Ferguson has been largely healed, most notably when he visited the team before they faced Internazionale at San Siro last season.

And half-a-dozen miles from Manchester Airport, at Old Trafford, Ferguson was asked what, at 34, Beckham might still bring to the grandest of stages.

In the chaotic first leg, Ferguson thought Milan's elegant manager, Leonardo, had missed a trick by playing him in central midfield — a mistake Ferguson himself had made in the 1999 European Cup final.

“I think David's strength has always been in his crossing and his set-piece play and that has been true throughout all of his career,” the Scot reflected.

“Over the last 15 years, AC Milan have been incredibly successful in keeping older players going, men like Maldini and Costacurta who played until they were approaching their forties.

“People might look on the age of the squad as a negative factor but what it does give Milan is great experience and I tend to lean towards experience as being a positive thing. But I haven't really got Beckham down in my conclusions,” Ferguson added, appearing far more concerned if Pato had recovered from a hamstring injury in time.

“But the one thing we are all aware of is that David is still a wonderful deliverer of a ball.”

Beckham was not the only show in town. Leonardo was questioned by Brazilian television about another thirty-something who still has hopes of a last World Cup hurrah in South Africa.

This might, he agreed, be the opportunity that Ronaldinho craves to impress Dunga that he still has a future with Brazil.

Unlike either man, Wayne Rooney knows that barring another wrecked metatarsal — an injury sustained by Wes Brown at Wolverhampton on Saturday, that will keep the England defender out for six weeks — he will definitely be a central figure in the World Cup.

Rooney missed that match at Molineux mainly because Ferguson, who is as protective of the boy from Croxteth as ever he was of Beckham, thought he had over-exerted himself at Wembley.

“On his current form, he would be a threat to anyone,” Ferguson said, knowing that a United goal tonight is his best insurance against the improbable 2-0 or 3-1 win that would see Milan through.

“We have to have that positive attitude. That's the nature of our club,” he said.

“Sometimes, we can make games more exciting than they need be. For instance, when we were leading 3-1 in the San Siro we could have shut up shop but we still kept looking for that fourth goal.

“I have always believed you should never defend a lead.

“But I can understand Milan feeling confident. They got that second goal towards the end and that will give them momentum. However, you can talk all you like but I back my team to produce and produce they will.”

It should be quite a clash between two of Europe’s genuine heavyweights.

United have the edge, leading 3-2, and while Beckham may be a threat, it would seem this will not be a happy return for the Old Trafford legend.

Manchester United v AC Milan: Key battles

Wayne Rooney v Alessandro Nesta: The in-form England striker will be chomping at the bit to return to action after missing the win at Wovles, but will have his work cut out against the strong and experienced Nesta.

Darren Fletcher v Andrea Pirlo: Giving the Italian maestro too much time and space on the ball can be a devasting tactic, as United have found out to their cost in the past. The tigerish Fletcher will be set the task of sticking to the 30-year-old's heels.

Rio Ferdinand v Klaas-Jan Huntelaar: Rio has managed just four games in four months, although United have kept clean sheets in two of those and his presence will boost United.He will have to be at his best to nullify the threat of Huntelaar.

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