Manchester United have one foot in the UEFA Champions League Final after a magnificent attacking display ended in a 2-0 victory over Schalke at the Veltins-Arena.
If it wasn’t for an inspired display from Manuel Neuer in the Schalke net the score could have been very embarrassing for the German outfit as United were dominant throughout the 90 minutes.
Neuer was first called into action after just three minutes after he somehow palmed away Wayne Rooney’s deflected effort when it looked destined for the top corner. Two minutes later a good overlap from Patrice Evra allowed Park Ji-Sung to cut inside and have a good strike on goal that Neuer was equal to. Javier Hernandez then broke through the offside trap, only to see his side-footed effort stopped by the German number one.
Hernandez was thwarted by Neuer a further two times before the Mexican revelation fired just wide after he set himself up following strong movement. Ryan Giggs was the next player to be foiled by the Schalke captain when his downward header was somehow clawed away by Neuer despite the goalkeeper’s body moving away from the ball.
Schalke were without first choice central defender Benedict Howedes and in his absence they struggled. Cristoph Metzelder in particular struggled throughout and was lucky not to be sent-off before half-time when he received a booking for pulling down Rooney when the striker had turned him. Earlier in the half Metzelder had kicked Rooney in an off the ball incident and can count himself fortunate to not have been booked for his misdemeanour.
It was a case of when not if United score as the half was drawing to a close, but Neuer’s one man campaign to keep Schalke in the tie once again halted United’s charge when he stopped Giggs, who was put through by an inspired Rooney pass. Fabio da Silva was next to have a go but his snatched effort went just over the bar.
It was baffling to think that the game would be goalless at half-time but goalless it was. The second-half started where the first had left off and United almost took the lead when Michael Carrick’s header was saved by that man Neuer. Carrick had a good game at the heart of the midfield and a lot of United’s play came from the midfielder’s cross-field balls to The Reds’ wide men. His holding back also allowed partner Giggs to push on and in doing so he almost opened the scoring when his feigned left-foot strike gave him the space to cut in and set himself, but his right-footed effort flew well wide.
It was another burst through the middle from Giggs that finally broke the deadlock after 67 minutes. Rooney received the ball on the left and after good hold up play fed it to the marauding Welshman to calmly place under the – for once, helpless Neuer. The goal rounded off another superb Champions League display from the evergreen midfielder, and makes him the oldest goalscorer in Champions League history.
Just two minutes later sloppy Schalke defending allowed Hernandez to play in Rooney, who placed the ball into the bottom corner to give United a 2-0 lead.
The second goal gave United breathing space and the chance to rest players ahead of the weekend’s huge game at Arsenal. Park, Hernandez and Rooney were all withdrawn to ensure they’re fully-fit for Sunday’s match. Paul Scholes’ substitute appearance was one of majesty; with Schalke’s continuing failure to press United’s midfielders played into the 36-year-old’s hands and his ball-playing was magnificent.
United looked dangerous every time they attacked and just before the final whistle Evra went just wide with a strike from just outside the box. Schalke couldn’t have had any complaints if The Reds had scored six or seven – such was the dominance, and it could have been if it wasn’t for the Gelsenkirchen side’s outstanding goalkeeper. Schalke’s Metzelder summed it up best in a post-match interview when he said: “Against Inter everything we tried worked. Against United we couldn’t even try anything.”
Sir Alex Ferguson made an effort of going over to Neuer to congratulate him on his performance in what will be seen in some sections as an attempt to change the player’s mind about his desire to move to Bayern Munich in the summer. He also described the Schalke ‘keeper’s performance as: “Incredible.”
So the United team widely-described as the ‘worst in a long time’ are on the verge of a fifth European Cup Final after one of the most one-sided Semi-final performances in history, in a manner very much “taught by Matt Busby”. Even the most optimistic of supporters couldn’t have dreamed of that at the beginning of the season
The starting line-up
1. van der Sar 7; 20. Fabio 7, 5. Ferdinand 7, 15. Vidic 7, 3. Evra 7; 25. Valencia 8, 16. Carrick 8, 11. Giggs 8, 13. Park Ji-Sung 7(18. Scholes 73); 10. Rooney 8(17. Nani 83), 14. Hernandez 7(8. Anderson 73).
Referee: Velasco Carballo