United stroll to first-leg victory

Barring an unlikely Schalke victory at Old Trafford next week,
United will contest the final at Wembley on May 28 after a
one-sided encounter in Germany. Ryan Giggs and the outstanding
Wayne Rooney scored United’s goals in a three-minute second-half
spell in the semi-final first leg at the Vetlins-Arena. Prior to
that, though, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men had wasted an astonishing 13
chances to score – 11 of them coming before the break. It left
Schalke needing a three-goal triumph to progress to a meeting with
either Real Madrid or Barcelona. On this evidence, United have
absolutely nothing to worry about. And for Rooney in particular, a
fifth European Cup final for the Red Devils – on the ground where
they won their first in 1968 – means personal redemption, having
returned to the Gelsenkirchen arena where he was sent off on his
last visit for England, to produce a wondrous performance that
confirmed his renaissance beyond any doubt. As United trudged in at
half-time, they cannot have known whether to laugh or cry. Their
pace, power and precision was simply too much for Schalke, who were
opened up with a regularity barely credible at this level of the
game. Incredibly though, the score remained goalless. Starting with
a Rooney effort that flicked off Atsuto Uchida and forced Manuel
Neuer into the first of a series of magnificent saves, and ending
with a last-minute opportunity when Giggs raced onto a Rooney
through-ball and failed to beat the Germany number one, United
created 11 clear chances. Had they done that over the duration of
both legs, Ferguson would probably have been quite pleased. To do
so in a single half, and not to take any of them, defied belief.
Rooney could only have wished he was on the end of some. Instead,
Park Ji-sung had two opportunities charged down, Giggs was denied
by Neuer twice and Fabio flashed a half-volley over the bar. By far
the worst culprit was Javier Hernandez. Lauded to the skies in
recent weeks after a series of timely interventions which have sent
United surging towards a record 19th league title, the Mexican was
too much for Schalke’s beleaguered defence. For once, though, the
22-year-old had left his shooting boots at home. Whether he was
being set up by Antonio Valencia, outstanding on the right wing,
Rooney or Park, Hernandez just could not find the target. Partly it
was his fault as shots flew wide of the Schalke goal, while on
other occasions Neuer was in the way. It appears the Germany keeper
is on his way to Bayern Munich this summer, which for United is a
pity, because on this evidence he would be a worthy successor to
Edwin van der Sar, who is retiring at the end of the season. On a
record-equalling 13th semi-final appearance, van der Sar was a
virtual bystander once he had made a couple of early stops to deny
Jefferson Farfan. Worryingly for Ferguson, the profligacy just
continued after the restart. Neuer denied Michael Carrick with a
brilliant fingertip save but, when the Schalke defence opened up
for Giggs shortly afterwards, the Welshman’s effort with his weaker
right foot was woeful. There must have been a huge fear in the
United camp that Schalke would soon start to show the form that got
them to this stage of the competition and put five goals past Inter
Milan at the San Siro in the quarter-final. Thankfully for Ferguson
and his team, they did some damage first. Rooney was the architect
of the opener, threading a fine ball through to Giggs who, with his
left foot, calmly slotted home. Within three minutes, United had
another chance as Hernandez set up Rooney. From 10 yards and in a
similar position to Giggs, he was never likely to miss as he bagged
his 14th goal of the season. In the knowledge that a three-goal
triumph for Schalke at Old Trafford in eight days’ time is
impossible to imagine, Ferguson’s introduction of Anderson and Paul
Scholes was designed purely to shore up the midfield. It worked,
too, allowing United to stroll home and let their minds wander
towards Sunday’s Premier League trip to Arsenal.