This, it has been implied, is a foregone conclusion. Much of the talk over the last few weeks has been centred upon which of the Spanish behemoths Manchester United would stand a better chance of beating at Wembley next month and the small matter of winning this semi-final has been comparatively overlooked. FC Schalke 04 are amongst the giants of German football, though, in stature if not in terms of silverware. Despite having the third-highest average crowds in the most-watched league in the world, they have never won the Bundesliga – their last German championship came in 1958 – and their finest moment of the last half-century or so came with with a UEFA Cup win against Internazionale in 1997. This year, though, they have battled their way to the semi-finals of the Champions League with a run that included a stunning win against Internazionale. In comparison with the other three teams left in this year’s Champions League, though, they remain relatively in the shadows – the unknown quantity of the last four.
We know plenty about Manchester United, of course. Last weekend saw Arsenal finally start to fade into the distance in their wing mirror as the finishing line in the Premier League draws closer and closer. The treble is off for this season – Manchester City saw to that a week and a half ago – but they continue rumble on in the league, trampling most before them without ever seeming to properly catch light. Yet there is an element of illusion to much of this debate. Manchester United have been awesome this season, in the “shock and awe” sense of the word. They. Have. Just. Kept. Winning. And even if things should go wrong in Gelsenkirchen this evening, their record at Old Trafford – just two league points dropped all season, for heaven’s sake! – is little short of frightening. Should they get through after these two matches, the winners of the other semi-final will of course have plenty of food for thought ahead of the big night at Wembley.
For half an hour Schalke’s plan to defend deeply looks woefully misplaced. Within three minutes, Wayne Rooney has had a curling shot towards the top corner away by the Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, and the extent to which he is going to have a busy evening must be starting to dawn upon Neuer, who within the next four minutes has saved well from Park and Hernandez. It has been said within the last few weeks that he may be the best goalkeeper in the world. He lives up to that reputation in the first half as his defenders flail and flap around him. Indeed, the match takes the feel of an attack versus defence training session. At the other end of the pitch, Edwin Van Der Saar is a virtual spectator aside from a couple of long range shots that he could comfortably gather whilst playing sudoku. Neuer, meanwhile, has formed a one-man defensive barrier against Manchester United, saving from Giggs, Hernandez, Hernandez (again), Park and Giggs (again). The dam, however, holds firm for now, and half-time it is Manuel Neuer 0-0 Manchester United.
The second half begins in much the same manner as the first half ended. Within ninety seconds of the restart, Neuer has flicked Evra’s header over the crossbar and within a minute of this Giggs has found himself a little space on the left-hand side of the penalty area, cuts inside and, with the whites of the goalkeeper’s eyes plainly in view, tries to place the ball around him and succeeds only in sending it five yards wide of the post. The thought begins to creep into the back of the head… what if? What if they can’t find a way past this octopus-like goalkeeper? What if Schalke, who, let us not forget, banged five past Internazionale away from home the other week, manage to find the footballing equivalent of crampons and snatch a goal? As the second half wears on, Schalke start to get a bit of possession and apply a little pressure – and it is only a little pressure – but this is just an illusion and, in the space of three minutes, the steamroller squashes the tie flat.
There is nothing extraordinary about either of the goals, no moment of earth-shattering genius that punctures this semi-final. It is nothing more than the sum total of almost seventy minute’s worth of prodding and poking that eventually finds a gap. After sixty-six minutes, Rooney threads the ball through to Giggs, who summons forth two decades’ worth of experience and rolls the ball through Neuer’s legs to give Manchester United the lead. Three minutes later, it’s two-nil when Hernandez’s pass finds Wayne Rooney, who places the ball past the goalkeeper again. It has been a highly-disciplined, almost perfunctory performance from Manchester United this evening and once the second goal goes in, the match – and almost certainly the tie – is over. It fizzles out like a birthday party after the guests have started leaving.
It’s what this season’s Manchester United team does. It wins, and it wins. It’s not unreasonable to say that, this evening, Schalke 04 fell short of the expectations set up by their thrashing of Internazionale in the last round of the competition (although what tonight’s result arguably says about Inter is another matter altogether), but to dismiss them as merely a weak team would be to do a disservice to what has been, even by the exacting standards that Manchester United have been setting themselves in recent years, one of the most solid, professional performances that we have seen from them in Europe of late. They teased, prodded and poked without ever allowing their hosts the opportunity to settle into a rhythm or find a way into the match. Whoever they come to meet in the final of this year’s competition will have been watching and taking notes and, no matter how swaggering and imperious either Real Madrid or Barcelona can be, those watching on their behalf may have experienced a most unusual sensation – a bead of sweat forming on the temple. It’s not quite done and dusted yet, but the metaphorical fat lady is already rehearsing her scales. Manchester United have a foot and three-quarters through the door of a Wembley final.
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