Manchester United are through to their third Champions League Final in the last four years following a comprehensive 6-1 aggregate victory over Schalke 04.
United won 4-1 on the night with goals coming from Antonio Valencia, Darron Gibson and the unlikeliest of braces, courtesy of Anderson. It means The Reds will face Barcelona at Wembley on May 28th in a repeat of the 2009 Final in Rome. It also means that Manchester United vs. Barcelona will become the most contested European Final in history; the teams have previously met in the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup and the aforementioned Champions League Final in Rome.
Nine changes were made from the first leg in Gelsenkirchen with Sir Alex Ferguson choosing to rest the majority of his first-choice starting eleven ahead of the crucial game against Chelsea on Sunday. Schalke started brightly and unlike the first leg were pressing United’s players in areas where possession could easily have been surrendered. However die Königsblauen were unable to make their pressure tell and their only real effort came from a tame Jefferson Farfan effort that went well-wide.
After receiving a knock to his chest in the opening ten minutes that looked like taking him out of the game, Darron Gibson recovered to dominate the midfield with vital interceptions and excellent distribution. The much maligned Irishman was trying to prove that he deserves to be in the Manchester United squad and after 26 minutes played a sublime defence-splitting pass to Antonio Valencia who made no mistake in dispatching the ball into the corner of helpless Manual Neuer’s net.
The favour was returned five minutes later when Valencia –somewhat fortuitously, played the ball into Gibson’s path, which the 23-year-old drilled in with a little help from a rare piece of poor goalkeeping from Neuer.
The United starting-eleven was written off by some as a “reserve team” but within thirty minutes the so-called reserves with well over 2,000 first-team appearances between them had all but sealed United’s place at in the European Cup Final. Schalke did pull back a goal with a fantastic half-volley strike from José Manuel Jurado to make it 4-1 on aggregate, but it meant that a defence that had only previously conceded one goal at Old Trafford in the Champions League this season had to let in a further three for the Gelsenkirchen outfit to progress.
As if the statement “Darron Gibson gave his finest performance in a United shirt in the Champions League Semi-final” was unexpected enough, the next one is even harder to believe: “Anderson scored two goals for United in a Champions League Semi-final second leg.” The Brazilian played poorly against Arsenal at the weekend, but responded in the grand manner to double his overall United goals tally to four. Anderson was unlucky not to celebrating a hat-trick after he was denied within the first ten minutes of the second-half when Neuer produced a world-class save from his curling effort. The goals make Anderson United’s second top-scorer in the Champions League this season will serve as a huge boost for the goal-shy Brazilian’s confidence.
As if winning with such relative ease wasn’t enough, United welcomed back Darren Fletcher during the second-half. The Scotsman’s fitness will be vital in the coming weeks if the club are to repeat their success of 2008, when United won both the League and Champions League. His energy and tendency to raise his game for the so-called “big matches” will come as a bonus to The Red Devils after his tenacious presence was sorely missed in the Final against Barca two years ago.
How United learn from the mistakes of Rome is a point of contemplation for the United manager over the next few weeks. At least six players are guaranteed a starting place under the arch at the end of the month; the other five places will depend upon the formation and tactics Sir Alex Ferguson decides to employ. Fringe players could also play their way into contention if they play a key role in helping United regain the Premier League title.
This weekend’s clash with Chelsea is of the utmost importance and Sir Alex Ferguson has declared himself delighted that he was able to rest so many players ahead of the game. Victory will all but seal the title for United, defeat will put Chelsea in the driving seat. With the League still to play for and a Champions League Final on the horizon, the term “squeaky bum time” has never been so appropriate.
1. van der Sar 6; 21. Rafael 6(3. Evra 60 6), 12. Smalling 6, 23. Evans 7, 22. O’Shea 6; 25. Valencia 7, 28. Gibson 8, 18. Scholes 7(24. Fletcher 73), 8. Anderson 9, 17. Nani 7; 9. Berbatov 6(7. Owen 77).
Referee: Pedro Proenca