In summer 2003, he has been introduced to Carlo Ancelotti as an absolute world premiere. A child prodigy at play on the fields of the European champions. His name, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, known as ‘Kaka’. When he landed at Milan’s Malpensa Airpot, he looked like a fresh schoolboy back from school with his hair neatly brushed but what happened three years later at Old Trafford was epic.
Doubtless, the Champions League is club football’s grandest stage, affording individuals talented enough, and with the itch for greatness, the opportunity to strut their stuff and seize the moment to become a household name across the world. In 2006/07, in the semi-finals stage, AC Milan met Manchester United after beating Bayern Munich 4-2 on aggregate, the first leg finished 2-2 at San Siro and then they won 2-0 at Allianz Arena with an amazing goal scored by Pippo Inzaghi.
The first leg
The first of two legs took place at Old Trafford. Manchester United set up in 4-3-3 in possession, Edwin van Der Saar as ‘keeper, Gabi Heinze and Wes Brown as centre-backs, Patrice Evra and John O’shea on the wings. The midfield formed was of Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney up front. Ancelotti kept his famous “Christmas Tree,” Milan played with Dida, Paolo Maldini and Nesta as stoppers, Massimo Oddo and Marek Jankulovski on the flanks, a world-class midfield with the likes of Pirlo as deep-lying playmaker, Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini to cover his flanks, Clarence Seedorf and Ricardo Kaka more advanced in support of Alberto Gilardino.
The stage was set on Wednesday 23 April 2007 for a commanding performance by the two great young stars of European club football. On one side you had Cristiano Ronaldo, who was newly anointed the Player of the Year by his fellow Premiership professionals. On the other side, Ricardo Kaka, whose wonderful gifts began to emerge when he played a bit-part in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup victory. As a focal point of rossonneri’s attack, the Brazilian operated in several positions in order to have the biggest influence possible. Whether it was dropping into to the midfield, creating as a pure playmaker or supporting poaching Pippo Inzaghi as a secondary striker in the 4-4-2 diamond, Kaka would not be contained.
The attacks didn’t take long. Sir Alex Ferguson chose a 4-5-1, scalable in 4-3-3 in possession, his decision to crowd his midfield and to start the match with Wayne Rooney as lone striker meant that there was room for Cristiano and Giggs to run inside the box. In the fifth minute, Ryan Giggs’ floated right-wing corner found Ronaldo and jumped to meet it with a header that Dida could only push up before scrambling back in vain attempt to prevent it from crossing the line.
In the 22nd minute, Clarence Seedorf strung a ball to Kaka who accelerated past Gabriel Heinze – who will play seasons later with the Brazilian at Real Madrid, with sheer ease, controlled the ball in stride at the edge of the box and finished his run with a cool, left-footed finish towards Edwin van der Sar’s far post.
The Red Devils responded with heavy fires. Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs ambushed Milan’s keeper Dida with a flurry of dangerous attempts. Ronaldo showed his repertoire of accelerations, and swerving shots from long range. Perpetually on the brink doing something extraordinary, he was a constant threat to the Italian club.
Kaka on his side, was still a threat. His ability to coast freely into United’s final third annoyed Sir Alex Ferguson who couldn’t find a plan to stop him. His devastating sprint a thing of seemingly unhurried beauty, his body swaying as one charge of direction blends seamlessly into another. In the 37th minute, Kaka mauled a long ball played in from the midfield and fended off a latching Darren Fletcher to win initial possession instinctively with his head up his sleeve. A flick on his right to beat (once again) Gabi Heinze inside forced Patrice Evra to close down, only to induce a crash and burn effect between the two defenders with another header before Kaka strolled into the position to bury another past Van der Sar. It was pandemonium at Old Trafford as Kaka’s ingenuity and solo brilliance had yet again delivered the travelling Milan supporters another moment of pure ecstasy.
In the second half, the Red Devils were more aggressive in attack, and they put Milan under siege. Just when we were wondering what had happened to Wayne Rooney, he delivered the goals that kept Manchester United’s hopes of a third European Cup not just alive but blazing and when the Fergie time came along he scored again letting the crowd go wild.
The second leg
Although the final result had Manchester United ahead on aggregate 3-2, while Milan were ahead 2-1. You shouldn’t let the scoreline fool you into thinking that Milan were down.
In the second leg, Ancelotti dropped Gilardino for Inzaghi and kept the same shape in a 4-3-2-1. Sir Alex just make one change, Vidic in, Evra out. As if it was his mission, Kaka starts the fire with a left-footed shot. His association with Clarence Seedorf was crucial. They are both attacking midfielders who play together and find each other in a little square, the second goal came 20 minutes later this time, Kaka was the one who assisted. At this moment, United needed a 1-0 victory to qualify for the final but Alberto Gilardino who replaced Filippo Inzaghi in the 66th minute, scored in the 78th after an assist from Massimo Ambrosini. When Ancelotti saw that his mission was achieved, he substituted the Magnificent #22 under a huge ovation of San Siro, noisier than the rain.
Like Luis Nazario Ronaldo at Old Trafford in 2003, the Red Devils fans will always remember how difficult it was for them to mark Kak. Too fast, many much skills, he was unstoppable and what is most funny is that when he was introduced to Carlo Ancelotti, he was described as a player who isn’t fast enough to a play in the tight Italian championship. Gabriel Heinze is lucid enough to say that the one who stated that was definitively wrong.
As attacking midfielder, he was not at Zidane’s level, but he was very close. Obviously, he came from the heaven. As the story of the 2006/07 Champions League semi-final affair shows, the suave Brazilian trequartista was not exaggerating and, for Manchester United, they were made to learn that the hard way. For them, and everyone who watches these games, they were the witnesses of two wonderful nights.