Fifty four thousand fans packed into the Veltins Arena to witness ‘The Royal Blues’ taking on the ‘Red Devils’. The spectators packed-in got more than their money’s worth as the two teams produced a sumptuous meal of attacking football contrary to the cagey affair expected by pundits round the world. Schalke buoyed by the rapturous home support tried to give it their best while Ferguson’s United returned the favour with interest.
Team Sheets: Absence of Hoewedes felt
Manchester United lined up more or less in a 4-4-2 with Rooney dropping off to increase the numbers in midfield. Schalke not one to lag behind, tried to match United’s line up at least on the drawing board. However, Rangnick’s men missed the assuring presence of Hoewedes and hence, Matip had to deputize as a centre-back. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs flourished in the center of the park as they were given the freedom of Germany with Schalke kept backing off to the amazement of one and all. One certainly wonders if Matip playing in his customary position in midfield would have allowed such territorial dominance. Ferguson, however, couldn’t have asked for more from his men out there in the middle – an assured, thoroughly professional and commanding display.
Has Sir Alex found the right balance, finally?
Manchester United have always been strong advocators of a 4-4-2. However, in Europe, after being constantly outnumbered and outrun in midfield, Ferguson had shifted his focus on a more assured looking 4-5-1. United found solidity in their new European avatar but looked far from menacing and the swagger seemed missing. However, the emergence of Chicharito has enabled Sir Alex to play Rooney in a deeper and more central role, often dictating play with his wide array of passing. Carrick acts as a shield to the back four by sitting deep, mopping up and often instigating attacks from United’s own half. Ryan Giggs has found a new lease of life in his position as a more central player and rolled back the years with some mouth-watering displays.
Undoubtedly, though, the most important factor has been the return of Park Ji Sung and Antonio Valencia to the starting XI. The South Korean is an extraordinarily hard working individual; his work rate never drops off even in the dying embers of the game. Valencia’s forte has been his sublime ability to balance attack with defence; the Ecuadorian has even managed to keep Portuguese sensation Nani off the starting XI, which is certainly no mean feat.
FC Schalke – overawed or found out?
Rangnick’s side have done their fans and club proud so far by reaching the penultimate round of the competition. On their way, Schalke have eliminated clubs of the calibre and stature of Valencia and Inter Milan. Before the match, many predicted a hard match for the favourites United. But what materialized on the pitch was far from an even contest, as United steamrolled the Royal Blues in one of the most one-sided champions league semi finals in recent history. Were Schalke finally found out or just intimated by the pedigree of their illustrious opponents? The respect shown to the Old Trafford outfit beggared belief. Surely Schalke would put up a better fight in the second leg? Let’s face it, they couldn’t be worse at OT.
Manuel Neuer: The best thing since sliced bread
The German number#1 had an outstanding game between the posts. The 25 year-old produced spectacular save after save that kept Schalke in with a chance and threatened to frustrate the United front men. He was finally beaten after the hour but not before he had made his mark on the game with a series of outstanding saves. Ferguson and United have been looking for Van Der Sar’s replacement round the globe, and Manuel Neuer just auditioned for the post in a manner that could have sealed the deal. However, Bayern Munich already seemed to have snapped up the German. Could Fergie and United hijack the deal? One thing’s for sure if Ferguson wants a player he more often than not gets his man.
Michael Carrick is all class, if only he did it more often
Carrick produced one of his finest displays in a long time to set United on their way to yet another Champions league final. The Englishmen did exactly what his critics berate him for i.e. grab the game by the scruff of the neck. Carrick grabbed it by the collar and never let go till the full-time whistle. Stats sometimes tell stories like words never can and United passed Schalke to death. Red devils completed 754 passes to Schalke’s 386, almost twice the number. Carrick was at the heart of it and kept United ticking over all night long. Carrick’s form has been so superb in Europe this season that Ferguson’s team became the only team in the history of Champions league football to keep clean sheets in all away matches. Exemplary stuff from the back four, Van Der Sar and Michael Carrick.
Man United Verdict:
Fergie’s side undoubtedly have more than a foot in the finals. All that needs to be done is to produce an assured performance in the second leg at home. Fergsuon’s team selections have been excellent to say the least and United look a different side now with Rooney and Chicharito working together in tandem up the field. Wembley awaits the Red Devils – a chance to bury the ghost of Rome and a chance to emulate the glorious triumph of ‘68 at the hallowed home of English football. The tie isn’t over but who would dare bet against United?
FC Schalke Verdict:
Schalke really have nothing to lose, they were beaten by a better side on the day but next week provides an opportunity to get some pride back, an early goal for Rangnick’s side and who knows what might happen. For inspiration they need not look any further than the Guiseppe Meazza in the previous round. If Raul and his Schalke can replicate the performance, the shock might still be on. They have made it hard for themselves by the insipid display at home; it seems an improbable task but not an impossible one.