Manchester United will face Barcelona at Wembley Stadium in the Champions League final after their B-team put Schalke to the sword Wednesday night at Old Trafford 4-1 (6-1, aggregate).
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Antonio Valencia effectively ended the game in the 26th minute when he ran on to an incisive pass from Darron Gibson to slot the ball through Manuel Neuer’s legs. Gibson, himself, then scored and despite a consolation goal from Jose Jurado, Schalke were unable to claw their way back into the match. A pair of second half goals from Anderson turned the result into a rout.
The result sets up a rematch of the 2009 final and will be broadcast live and in HD on FOX from London on May 28th. It is United’s first trip to the finals since 2009 and their third meeting in a European finals against Barcelona. Both teams are aiming to win their fourth European Cup.
Sir Alex Ferguson rested nine players who had lined up against Arsenal on the weekend and left Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney off the team sheet altogether ahead of United’s now-pivotal game against Chelsea on the weekend. It made little difference in what was ultimately an assured, if at times undisciplined, United performance.
In so doing, United also banished the ghosts of last season’s quarterfinals collapse to Bayern Munich and gained the opportunity to avenge one of their gravest defeats. Then, Barcelona comprehensively beat United 2-0 behind goals from Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi, making the English giants look timid. It was a humbling night in Rome for a club widely considered to be one of the world’s best at the hands of a club that were just starting to prove they were in fact the greatest team on Earth.
Tonight, however, fans were treated to some entertainment even if the conclusion felt foregone. For much of the first half-hour, the match had the feel of a training run out. Valencia’s goal changed that, assuring United of the win but also sparking the game into life. The goal came when Atsuto Uchida committed a rare gaffe, turning the ball over in his own half for Gibson to latch on to. The much-maligned midfielder showed he can make world-class passes, and his searcher to Valencia was as good a through-ball as you’ll see in the game.
Gibson would find the net himself just five minutes later when, off a throw-in, he was allowed in alone in the area with no cover. Valencia collected the restart, tapped it up from the endline to Gibson at the spot, and he smacked it home past Neuer. Neuer, who has been Schalke’s MVP – as well as a Bayern Munich and Manchester United offseason acquisition target – looked mortal on the play and perhaps should have done better to keep the ball out.
Jurado pulled one back after a giveaway from Chris Smalling, filling in for Ferdinand in the mddle of the defense, that was chipped back over and off Jonny Evans. Anderson could not get to Jurado in time, and van der Sar was unable to keep the ball out.
Anderson would make amends in the second half, scoring twice in short order to put his stamp on the game. His first goal came off service from Nani, who drove down the right flank all alone, then cutting back across Uchida to beat Neuer. Four minutes later, he would add his second, with Dimitar Berbatov unselfishly crossing to the Brazilian to allow him an easy tap-in.
Schalke never had any answers for even United’s second stringers, making their thrashing of Inter Milan in the quarterfinals look that much more remarkable. Schalke’s defesne was frequently in disarray and even the return of Benedikt Howedes from injury to the starting lineup was not enough to settle their nerves at Old Trafford. They had been accused of being no-shows at the Veltins last week, but in truth, they stand revealed as a team that look lucky to have reached the semifinals in the first place.
At virtually every position Schalke were outmatched, and while the young Germans have the potential to develop into a legitimate force, they spent far too much time tonight chasing errant passes and making fundamental errors to allow Berbatov and Nani behind their back line. For United, this was a demonstration of how deep their team truly is. While few think the likes of Evans, Gibson and O’Shea are world-class, against a lineup that featured Jefferson Farfan, Raul and Howedes, they were more than capable.
And Ferguson, canny as always, got a huge bonus. Now, against Chelsea on Sunday, he is able to field a fully-rested crop of starters in a game that will almost certainly decide who wears the Premier League crown. Say what you wish about United: This club has created a culture of winning. That confidence was on full display again tonight.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay’s Premier League.