'Maldini was my idol': Darmian's AC Milan memories
Saturday’s match against AC Milan in Cardiff will be special for one Manchester United player in particular.
Italian defender Matteo Darmian came through the youth system at the Rossoneri and made his debut for the club as a 16-year-old in November 2006.
Now at the age of 29, Matteo may have only featured a further five times in all competitions before moving on from the San Siro in 2010, but it’s clear he still cherishes the decade he spent at the seven-time European champions.
“I grew up at AC Milan,” said the right-back, who also played for Padova, Palermo and Torino before joining United four years ago. “I spent nine or 10 years in the Academy, so I grew up there as a player but also as a man, so I’m proud of that.
“When I was young, AC Milan were one of the top teams in the Italian league, so it was always good to watch them play.
“I think they were one of the best teams in the league, and not just in [Serie A].”
As well as the 2004 Scudetto, Milan won two Champions League titles while Matteo was on the club's books – the first of which came in 2003, when Carlo Ancelotti’s side beat Juventus on penalties in the final at Old Trafford.
“Of course, it was a big game between Juventus and AC Milan because, as you know, there is a big rivalry,” he recalled. “At the end, Milan won the cup so it was good for us. It was a great game.”
Victory over Liverpool in the final in Athens four years later came after a Kaka-inspired Milan had seen off United in the semi-finals.
The Brazilian Ballon D’Or winner was the star of that side – which beat United 3-0 in the second leg in Italy after we’d edged a 3-2 thriller at Old Trafford – but the Rossoneri were able to call upon some true footballing greats during those dominant years at home and abroad.
"I think [Andrea] Pirlo is the one that takes more responsibility to play – he always wants the ball and tries to pass forward," said Matteo.
"He had a very good pass. [Gennaro] Gattuso, of course, was the kind of midfielder that everyone wants in their team because he recovered a lot of balls and he pressed everywhere.
"Then they had [Clarence] Seedorf and Rui Costa who were able to make assists for goals, so all of the midfielders were very good."
It was two names in Milan’s feared backline that stood out above everyone else for Darmian, though.
“Of course, they had a lot of great players but I think Paolo Maldini was, and is, my idol," he said. “He was a top-class defender so when I trained with them, I tried to look at every moment of his training session because I think he was one of the best defenders in the world.
“[There was] also Alessandro Nesta. They had a lot of good players – a lot of good defenders, but I think those two are my heroes.”
Maldini retired in 2009 and Nesta, along with Gattuso, Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi, departed the club in the summer of 2013, after which Milan entered a period of decline, but they’re still likely to pose a tough test for the Reds at the Principality Stadium this weekend, in a match you can watch live on MUTV.
The International Champions Cup tie is the latest in a long line of fixtures between the teams, going back to the European Cup semi-final of 1958.
The Italians emerged victorious back then, as well as in the knockout rounds in 1969, 2005 and 2007, before we finally got one over on the Rossoneri with a thumping 7-2 aggregate win in the Champions League round of 16 in 2010.
“Of course it’s a big rivalry because I think Manchester United and AC Milan are two of the biggest clubs in the world,” insisted Darmian, who captained the Reds in our friendly against the Italians 12 months ago, when asked if he was aware of our mutual history.
“They fight for big trophies, so Milan are a big rival.”
As with all of Manchester United’s pre-season games, you can see us take on AC Milan in Cardiff live on MUTV.