Quite a challenge faces Milan, the seven-time European Cup winners, in Manchester this evening and plenty of people have been lining up to offer Leonardo advice on how to achieve the unprecedented, namely to win by a two-goal margin in the second leg of a Champions League knockout tie at Old Trafford.
First, there was his boss. Silvio Berlusconi dropped by at Milane-llo to have lunch with Milan's head coach. Such meetings are routine, but this being the president of Milan, a man whose sense of his own excellence in matters of football tactics and strategy is abundant, the wide assumption is that Berlusconi had some specific suggestions for his greenhorn coach. Then there was Alex Ferguson, whose analysis of Milan's formation in the first leg was unusually bold. Ferguson told a radio interviewer of his surprise at how Leonardo had arranged his players on the field for Milan's 3-2 defeat at San Siro a fortnight ago, specifically that David Beckham, once Ferguson's player, had been deployed so deep. "You want him in a position to get crosses in," said the Scot.
Next to step forward was Klaas Jan Huntelaar. The Dutch stri-ker is no loudmouth, though his frustrations at his limited opportunities with Milan are voiced from time to time. Fresh from a confident showing with Holland, Huntelaar boldly outlined the four-man forward line he would select for the Manchester United match, were he picking Milan's team. He was in it, of course. So was fellow centre-forward Marco Borriello, and so were the two Brazilians Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato.
So much counsel ahead of such a big challenge. It is perhaps the burden of the novice head coach, as Leonardo is, that larger parcels of advice tend to arrive uninvited, like junk mail through the letterbox of a new home owner. Just as Milan spent some of the troubled, early months of the season issuing assurances that Leonardo, embarking in his early 40s on the first senior coaching job of his life, knew what he was doing, now he has players, presidents and a rival manager with decades more experience in the job telling him how to do it. Vexed? Leonardo has the smooth demeanour not to show it, or to be visibly bruised by the implication that his rookie qualities are showing.
As he prepared for the flight to north west England, Leonardo was eagerly seeking only one expert opinion, that of Milan's medical staff. Cajoling them into the diagnosis he wanted, he was very happy to hear them say Pato was fit enough, after the muscle complaint he picked up 10 days ago, to at least travel with the squad. Pato still looks unlikely to start. Doubts over Wayne Rooney's fitness, raised by Ferguson, have so far been greeted with suspicion by Milan and their young coach, who may be new to the profession but recognises that a rival manager's releasing of information like a possible injury to his most potent striker tends to happen with the purpose of disguise.
Nor will Leonardo necessarily take Ferguson's advice on where to deploy Beckham. There remains a strong possibility that the former England captain will watch the opening minutes of his first return to the Old Trafford where he was employed for the best part of his career from the substitutes' bench. Beckham has started only one of Milan's last four matches. So much for the imponderables. Leonardo cast aside speculations over his leading scorer, Pato, over Manchester United's most in-form player, Rooney, and over the England prospects of Beckham, for whom some in the British press would turn this evening into a World Cup audition.
Leonardo was far keener to purposefully talk up the one man with direct experience of engineering unlikely triumphs in these sorts of heavyweight circumstances - Ronaldinho. And if the Milan coach has had a conspicuous success since assuming the job from the popular Carlo Ancelotti it has been in coaxing better football from Ronaldinho than Ancelotti did. "Ronaldinho is a leader," said Leonardo, "and right now, he is the most important player at Milan. He was the best in the world. Then he had two or three years when he withdrew a bit from the spotlight. He had some problems and yes, he did some silly things, and stopped training so hard.
"That is his story, but it is also a wonderful story, because Ronaldinho is focused again now and he is working very hard. I see again the sort of Brazilian that football loves to watch in action." To these words, Ferguson will cock an interested ear. Some six years ago, when the Manchester United manager waved Beckham away from Old Trafford, it was Ronaldinho, the Brazilian that football loves to watch in action, who he wanted instead.
In the end Ronaldinho went elsewhere, dazzled and dipped. His revival now has its biggest examination. He takes on Old Trafford charged with working wonders for Milan. @Email:email@example.com