United flashed double-winning form

Manchester United took a giant step towards Wembley against a nervous, disjointed Schalke side tonight in Gelsenkirchen, with Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney leading them to a 2-0 win in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal.

United now take two away goals into next week’s return meeting at Old Trafford. On the evidence of tonight, they look to have no problems awaiting them there whatsoever.

Tomorrow, the Champions League semifinal first legs continue as Real Madrid play host to Barcelona at the Bernabeu. (Live on FX tomorrow from 2 p.m. ET.)

It was simply too easy for Manchester United against a side that looked overawed and disbelieving of the occasion. Even their rabid fan base was reduced to wry smiles by the close of play, seeing one team put on a full-tilt showing that showcased the best football has to offer, and the other, well, not showing up at all.

The Red Devils were dominant from the whistle, dissecting the Germans with a precision that will have many questioning how this Schalke side could possibly have ousted Inter Milan in the quarterfinals (and by such a margin). There, Schalke showed counter-attacking flair and defensive pressure. Tonight, they showed nothing but flop sweat in the face of a withering United attack that would have paid more dividends had it not been for the superb individual performance of `keeper Manuel Neuer.

Neuer, who told his club last Wednesday that he was leaving via a post on Facebook, showed infinitely more class today. It’s easy to see why he wants out: He was shelled thanks to a defense that had no answers for the creativity of Rooney and Giggs in midfield, the passing of Michael Carrick, and over everything, the speed and desire of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez.

It’s also easy to see why Bayern Munich and Manchester United want him. Neuer was credited with seven saves in the first half alone, a somewhat ungenerous accounting that fails to tell just what yeoman work he did. What saves he made: He palmed out an audacious attempt by Rooney when the match was only seconds old, made a massive kick save on Chicharito minutes later, then an astonishing reaction stop on a Giggs header. Had it not been for him, this game would have been over inside the first 25 minutes.

The goals, if a bit late despite such dominance, were well-taken. Giggs, fed by a brilliant through-ball from Rooney, was sent in alone on Neuer to cheekily throw it through the `keeper’s legs in the 67th. Then Rooney threw Schalke under the bus two minutes later when Chicharito pounced on a loose ball, whipped past Joel Matip and Christoph Metzelder, and calmly gifted Rooney.

Schalke simply had no answers for anything in any part of the field. Their young defense, a bit wobbly by nature (but never this ragged) were shredded. The absence of Benedikt Howedes was keenly felt and even the heroics of Atsuto Uchida wide – the closest thing Schalke had to a standout field player – couldn’t stem the tide. Metzelder, once a great German defender? He was left taking his pants off the floor when Chicharito danced past him to feed Rooney for the winner.

Raul, the crafty goalscorer and poacher, vanished until very late in the game. Edu and Jefferson Farfan, who had been so dynamic against Inter Milan, might as well have not got off the coach – they were given acres of time and space and yet couldn’t complete passes. For Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar, it was as easy a night as a footballer can have. Only sub Sergio Escudero, entering with 13 to play, tested the trio at all, and this with a very hopeful late attempt that van der Sar saved well.

Simply put, anything United wished to do, they did. No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson was breaking out in wide smiles with a full twenty minutes left to play. He had the luxury of removing Park Ji-Sung and Chicharito to rest them up for their game against Arsenal on the weekend. What a gift!

Ralf Rangnick, a bit rueful by the time it was all over, but nothing less than a gentleman to his counterparts, had no answers either, but it would be hard to blame him for some singularly ineffective subs. It’s unclear whether the presence of, say, Lionel Messi, could have done much on the night against what truly was a juggernaut of a performance.

If Schalke are to recover, Rangnick will have to have a bit of a re-think. But given that his team wilted under home lights, there’s no reason to think they can succeed at Old Trafford. United are saying: Bring on Real Madrid or Barcelona. They have to sensing a double is theirs for the taking.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay’s Premier League.