Manchester United came to San Siro shimmering with hope that they would wrest triumph from Milan. In the end all they could take away was the grim comfort of knowing that they could have done no more against stylish and shrewd rivals who had outclassed them. There is to be no Champions League final between Premiership clubs. The Athens police will be relieved not to have the prospect of United and Liverpool fans duelling on their streets, and for the rest of us there is another sort of reward.
On May 23 Milan will seek to settle accounts with Rafael Benítez's squad, who tore the trophy so audaciously from their grasp in 2005. Events here must fire a conviction that they have all the arts required to do so. It will, none the less, be an utterly different affair to this semi-final. Liverpool thrive on their defence whereas United, so understrength in that department, could not prevent a refined devastation by Milan.
Sir Alex Ferguson's team may have shaken off a spell of domination from Carlo Ancelotti's footballers last week to pull off a 3-2 win but there was no escape here. Benítez will dwell on a stretch of the second half at San Siro when Milan, 2-0 ahead, were reduced to hacking the ball away in an unrefined way. Wayne Rooney, then, was even demanding a penalty as he was jostled while attempting a bicycle kick.
Despite all that Liverpool's manager will also jot down the fact that United did not force the goalkeeper Dida to a truly testing save. The lesson for United, such as it was, had probably been taken on board weeks before kick-off. Ferguson had grasped the fact that a makeshift defence will not do when a midfield as balanced and creative as Milan's is out to undermine it.
United's creative players floundered for the most part but how could they set about Milan with poise when there was forever a chance of imminent disintegration behind them? At a minimum the Old Trafford club would have given Milan a far more stringent examination had their squad been as near to full strength as Ancelotti's.
In the second minute Kaka had run straight past Vidic to slant a low ball across the face of goal which eluded everyone. Almost immediately Edwin van der Sar was saving from a revitalised Clarence Seedorf. This was a perfectly harmonious ensemble, with Rino Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini catching the eye as they went about the everyday chores with efficiency.
Milan were in front after 11 minutes when Seedorf headed down a long ball and Kaka, from 22 yards, drilled a low left-foot shot past Van der Sar. The goal was simple yet crammed with understanding and technique. There were no such demonstrations from United before the lead was doubled.
After 30 minutes Gabriel Heinze played a foolish pass to Vidic and the Serb cleared only as far as Andrea Pirlo, who squeezed over a cross. Vidic met it with a tame header towards Seedorf, who forced himself away from Darren Fletcher. The Dutchman then skipped wide of Vidic's sliding attempt at recovery before picking the same spot as Kaka.
Kaka, in search of his fourth goal of the tie, had turned inside Vidic in the 53rd minute and drawn a good parry from Van der Sar. In sitting deep Milan also proved that they had been studying the causes of their decline at Old Trafford. Here Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo could expect clusters of opponents around them whenever they got the ball and they allowed themselves to decline into counterproductive frustration.
Milan established the 3-0 lead in the 78th minute. Ambrosini's pass from the left on the counterattack was exquisite and the substitute Alberto Gilardino hared through to flight a finish past Van der Sar. United had dreamed of attaining greatness at San Siro but will now fix their minds on the Premiership title and the FA Cup.
Outwitted tactically, outclassed technically, Manchester United are out of the European Cup and what will frustrate Sir Alex Ferguson most is that his team were outfought here last night. How they lacked a dog of war like Gennaro Gattuso, who was at United's expensive ankles like a ravenous pit-bull.
Gattuso simply refused talents like Cristiano Ronaldo the air to breathe, let alone the space to express themselves, and the best player in the Premiership disappeared. Even United's lesser lights were hounded into submission by Gattuso. The Italian World Cup-winner went in so hard on Darren Fletcher that he lost a shin-pad, but not the ball.
That was the key. Milan won the ball time and again, and used possession superbly as their fans sang in the rain. Just as the elements threw everything at the contestants, so Milan launched everything at United, seizing the lead after 11 minutes through the imperious Kaka, extending it through the tireless, ageless Clarence Seedorf on the half-hour before Alberto Gilardino got the party really started.
Ferguson's side were handed a lesson in pass and move, support and shoot: Milan's football was chess with knives, and United were cut to pieces by Gattuso and company. Milan's No 8 will have more of a fight on his hands in the final when he encounters a Liverpool side led by another No 8, Steven Gerrard, who loathes Gattuso from their meeting in Istanbul two years ago.
Liverpool versus AC Milan, Gerrard versus Gattuso, in the European Cup final: ITV are showing repeats again.
With plots Inspector Morse would struggle to solve only in the bizarre world of modern football could the Champions' Cup be contested by a side who qualified after finishing third in their league, and another who failed to qualify because of a corruption scandal but appealed and were reinstated. Simple.
Yet Athens promises much on May 23, not least a party between the tens of thousands of merry envoys from Anfield and San Siro. As well as smiling policemen, relieved at avoiding a showdown between bitter rivals from the East Lancs Road, Athens will brim with sub-plots, many harking back to Istanbul.
Can Milan hold on to a lead? Will Gattuso risk smirking in the tunnel at half-time as Gerrard charges past? Will Dida match the penalty-saving brio of his Anfield counterpart? Will the wise heads of Milan live with the strong hearts of Liverpool. Will the European Cup spend the night at the end of Gerrard's hotel bed again. Will Peter Crouch against Paolo Maldini be the ultimate in long in the leg versus long in the tooth? So many questions.
In Greece, many admiring eyes will be on the clever Brazilian artist Kaka, surely destined for European Footballer of the Year honours after eclipsing Ronaldo, his main challenger, home and away. From the moment Kaka ghosted past the struggling Nemanja Vidic, United knew they were in for a chastening night.
Vidic then failed to close down Kaka, who had lost Fletcher in midfield, gliding on to Seedorf's headed flick, menace trailing in his wake. His finish was magnificent, the ball swept irresistibly past Edwin van der Sar.
San Siro erupted, the Ultras screaming in delight, waving the placards that had spelled out "WIN FOR US'' before kick-off. The reaction was understandable: Kaka's was a goal that could have graced the local catwalks.
United appeared daunted, cautious even, with Paul Scholes eschewing tackles as he was on a booking.
Ferguson had removed Scholes from the boiler-room, initially playing him as the middle man in a support trident behind Wayne Rooney, but Scholes soon dropped back to assist Fletcher and Michael Carrick in fighting the fires fanned by Kaka.
Ryan Giggs showed there was life in the visitors, drawing a smothering stop from Dida, but United's usual outlets, Ronaldo and Rooney, endured a night filled with frustration. Five minutes from the break, Ferguson switched his attacking players, pushing Ronaldo more central, but Milan were two goals to the good by then. Again Vidic was found wanting, losing possession to Andrea Pirlo on United's left as San Siro cackled.
Again Milan showed their capacity to mete out swift punishment. Pirlo's delivery caused chaos, Vidic heading hurriedly out to Seedorf on the edge of the box. The Dutchman touched the ball past Carrick, ignored Vidic's rash challenge and drilled the ball inexorably past Van der Sar. San Siro loved it.
Manchester United's hopes of joining Liverpool in a first all-English final in Europe's premier club competition were shattered last night as they were outclassed by the aristocrats of AC Milan, who will try to avenge the Merseyside club's extraordinary victory in the Champions League show-down in Istanbul two years ago.
After goals from Kaká, Clarence Seedorf and Alberto Gilardino had earned Milan a 3-0 victory in the San Siro for a 5-3 aggregate triumph, Carlo Ancelotti, the victorious coach, called it a "perfect" performance, but he does not expect Rafael BenÍtez, the Liverpool manager, to allow Milan to play such exhibition football in the final in Athens on May 23.
Several Milan players, particularly Gennaro Gattuso, had spoken about their desire for a rematch against Liverpool, whom they led 3-0 at half-time in Istanbul in 2005 only for BenÍtez's team to score three goals in six second-half minutes and win in a penalty shoot-out. Ancelotti, however, maintained that revenge was not in his thoughts.
With United eliminated just 24 hours after Chelsea, their nearest challengers in the Barclays Premiership, had gone out at Anfield, Ferguson was asked whether European competition is easier for those clubs, such as Liverpool and Milan, who are not involved in a title race, a theory that José Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, has floated in recent days. "I couldn't say categorically, but we have a very tough league and we've been using the same players in the last few weeks without any respite," Ferguson said.
Ferguson also suggested that the FA Premier League had failed to make life easier for his club by refusing to postpone Saturday's derby match away to Manchester City for 24 hours, but he offered no excuses for United's failure. "The way Milan started, we never coped with it," he said. "At that level you have to see it through, but we lost two goals cheaply. We should have coped better."
Gabriel Heinze and Nemanja Vidic, the latter returning after five weeks out with a fractured collarbone, were the culprits as the excellent Kaká and Seedorf put Milan 4-3 ahead on aggregate, leaving United needing two goals to progress. They improved in the second half, but, with Cristiano Ronaldo "disappointing" in Ferguson's words, Gilardino put the issue beyond any doubt with 12 minutes remaining.
The outstanding player of the tie was Kaká and, after United failed to get to grips with the Brazilian, Ferguson could offer BenÍtez little advice. "He's a very good player, floating from side to side behind the striker," Ferguson said. "The way we play, we don't man-mark." BenÍtez can only hope to learn from United's mistakes.