Manchester United have one foot in the Champions League finals at Wembley and must expect to see off Schalke Wednesday in perfunctory fashion. (TV: FX, 2 p.m. ET)
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Holding a two-goal lead after their clockwork performance in Gelsenkirchen, United are so confident of getting the job done that they look set to rest the men who got them the win – Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney – for the second leg of the semifinals in order to focus on what is now a massive Sunday Premier League game against Chelsea.
Few give Schalke a chance to overturn the deficit at the Theatre of Dreams. The Blues have dropped three straight and the form they showed against Inter Milan and Valencia in previous rounds deserted them last week at the Veltins. There, they were outplayed and out-thought in every aspect of the game, with United turning in one of the classic performances in this year’s Champions League.
Had it not been for the heroics of keeper Manuel Neuer (who was arguably the man of the match), United could have put the game to bed inside the first five minutes. Schalke’s young defense, struggling in the absence of Benedikt Howedes (ab strain), were no match for the vision and passing of Giggs and Michael Carrick and were unable to shackle Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez up top.
The biggest worry for Schalke is the fitness of Howedes. Without him in the lineup, the Gelsenkirchen squad have lost three straight, and it is unclear whether he will be able to take part at Old Trafford. In his stead, Schalke have relied on Joel Matip, Christoph Metzelder and Atsuto Uchida on the flank. Metzelder is far past his sell-by date, and Matip and Uchida looked overawed and overwhelmed last Tuesday.
Available for Schalke for the first time in two months is striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but it is not guaranteed he will even come off the bench. Last time, Edu, Jefferson Farfan and Raul were all easily swatted back by Park Ji-Sung, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, with Edwin van der Sar only having to make one save of note.
United do come into the game feeling the strain, however: All four Champions League semifinalists lost on the weekend, and for United there is a growing feeling of unease. They were shocked Sunday by an Arsenal side with nothing to lose despite being gifted two game-changing no-calls by ref Chris Foy. Despite Sir Alex Fergson’s predictable fulminations against the man in the middle, his own players admit they failed to perform, with Patrice Evra raising his hand to take responsibility.
That loss, combined with Chelsea’s lucky – and arguably undeserved – win over Tottenham (thanks to two very controversial calls) has turned what was an amble to their 19th league title into a scramble. They must now hope to avoid a repeat of last April’s pivotal 2-1 home defeat to Chelsea that allowed the Blues to take the lead in the 2009-10 race for good.
There is still acres of talent on hand for the Champions League match, mind you. Paul Scholes is expected to slot into the midfield behind Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen up top with Valencia and Park providing the width and bite. And Ferdinand and Vidic have proved to be the best defensive tandem in both England and Europe this season, with United’s defensive record the best in the tournament to date.
As a result, it’s not hard to see fans looking ahead to two bigger tests: against new rivals Chelsea on Sunday, then a massive European final challenge on home soil. United will face Barcelona, a tall order despite their Wembley advantage. After all, we know what happened the last time the two sides met in a final: Barcelona cruised to an easy win in 2009, virtually unscathed by United.
Before that, however, United has to take care of business in both the semifinal and their league race.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay’s Premier League.