Milan and Manchester United meet at Old Trafford this evening and it’s probably the best season for a Clash of Devils as the two sides have so much in common.
They have both witnessed a fair share of disappointments since their dynastic heydays and with the Rossoneri experiencing financial disasters.
Going by their positions in the table, both seem closer to the top ever since the dwindling times.
Playing against each other in the Europa League will indicate how far they’ve fallen and suggest that maybe, they are on their way back up where they possibly belong after many years of struggle.
Whether these are false dawns or not remains to be seen, but the fixture is brimming with history.
Just about every time they face each other, there’s a narrative involved. While United comfortably triumphed when they met in 2010, the second leg at Old Trafford was heralded as the ‘homecoming’ of David Beckham. The Englishman only came on from the bench and the first leg narrative revolved around a certain Wayne Rooney.
That game also gave social media a GIF for the ages, as Ronaldinho was captured by the camera, smacking his lips at the prospect of playing against the 2008 European champions.
There were moments of magic from the Brazilian, only for Rooney to steal the show with a brace.
There was a magical moment involving another Brazilian, Kaka, who in 2007 scored an iconic goal in a Rossoneri 3-2 loss at Old Trafford. However, in that campaign, Carlo Ancelotti’s men progressed over the two legs to reach the final thanks to a 3-0 win at San Siro.
The mercurial Kaka massacred the Red Devils at Old Trafford, running riot while constantly placing himself between the lines in attacking midfield. His runs in-behind were too quick for Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Gabriel Heinze to pick up.
His reading of the midfield spaces shone through, and ironically, it came under a coach who had shown disdain towards classic number tens earlier in his career.
The Brazilian broke in-behind for the first goal and just about knocked out three United players for a famous second. In his failed attempt to catch the marauding Kaka, Heinze ran into Patrice Evra, and Darren Fletcher was no match for his pace and close control. That night perhaps defined Kaka in many ways in terms of his approach to the game.
In the same game, Rooney showed his goal-scoring prowess in spectacular fashion too. His late winner helped United take a 3-2 lead to San Siro, as he finished brilliantly after receiving the ball outside the ball.
As fearless as he was, the Englishman slammed the ball past a helpless Dida, who perhaps wasn’t expecting the fierce effort from Rooney. Like it was for Kaka, the game stood for what Rooney has always been known for - tremendous work rate and never-ending grit.
The storyline attached to the two legs in 2007 was peculiar too. A United win or a draw in the second leg at San Siro would have ensured that the Champions League final against Liverpool. A Milan win gave them a shot at redemption and a chance to put the Istanbul ghosts to bed in Athens.
Old Trafford had also hosted the Champions League final of 2003, which saw Ancelotti’s Milan take on Marcello Lippi’s Juve. In what was a dominating show from Paolo Maldini, the Rossoneri won on penalties. The iconic image of Ancelotti’s men being led by their skipper in the trophy celebration is another historic moment in the club’s history.
While it is fair to say that there’s always a fascinating narrative to these games, the backdrop to the rather sad meeting in 1958 was more depressing.
United had lost eight of their players in the Munich air disaster, the club was left reeling financially, and there was a period around that phase when United could’ve been shut down. However, the club trod on, having to play Milan in the semi-final of the 57-58 campaign.
Despite everything, United did beat Giuseppe Viani’s men 2-1 in Manchester, only to be shown the door after a 4-0 hammering in Italy. Nils Liedholm, the iconic Swede who made a name for himself in Italy, did score against United as Juan Schiaffino grabbed a brace to take Milan to the final against Real.
While multiple sources have spoken gleamingly of United’s Busby Babes of that period, the tragic times of February 1958 have become a proud part of the club for what followed.
The March 2021 meeting may not be as gilded as the previous ones, but there’s a narrative in there too.
One involves Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his connection to both the great clubs. While the big Swede may be unavailable for the first leg, he could return for the second leg and come up against Eric Bailly, who was said to be close friends with Zlatan.
Gigio Donnarumma and David de Gea will take up opposite goalposts, just about when the pendulum seems to be swinging in the Italian’s way.
It will be a particular game for Milan defenders Diogo Dalot, who is on loan from Manchester United, and Fikayo Tomori, who returns to England after his temporary move from Chelsea in January.
The game would also reunite two former Sporting teammates - Bruno Fernandes and Rafael Leao. There are plenty of talking points regarding this fixture, from past, present and future.
The game has always had the makings of being a classic. This time it’s in Europa League, but the development of Milan and Manchester United suggests the next Clash of Devils will take place in the Champions League, where they both belong.