Neuer's fine audition could turn Ferguson's head
It has been a season of personal auditions for Manuel Neuer. The 25-year-old had been coveting the notion of leaving his beloved Gelsenkirchen for Bayern Munich before the Bavarians arrived at this stadium back in December. The saves which he produced in a 1-0 Schalke win, from the midfielder Toni Kroos in particular, had the Bayern manager Louis van Gaal enraptured and in little doubt about the wisdom of opening his cheque book. "I will discuss the issue with the board," he said before his side left town that night which sounded suspiciously like the threat it might well prove to be.
When Neuer's name came up in Sir Alex Ferguson's pre-match press conference on Monday evening the United manager made a rather ham-fisted attempt to say the words Ich kenne nicht (I know nothing) but the goalkeeper certainly gave him an education into his talents last night. The suspicion that Bayern have all but tied up a deal to take him to the Allianz Arena for next season has seen Neuer recede from the debate about who should succeed Edwin van der Sar when he retires but the evidence that a move for Neuer might be the right choice was there before Ferguson's very eyes.
Positioning, agility, awareness: each was in equal evidence in the most one-sided first-half ever seen at this stage of Europe's elite competition. Neuer saved seven of the 11 shots which rained in on his goal in that period alone.
Those United followers who had wanted to see more of the force they had been told they were up against would perhaps have seen a performance of these proportions on YouTube, where an elementary search calls up the Champions League last-16 tie against Porto in 2008, in which Neuer revealed the talent which has made him his idol Jens Lehmann's natural successor in the international jersey. They still talk about that performance here. After single-handedly forcing the game into penalties, he saved spot-kicks from Bruno Alves and Lisandro Lopez to help Schalke progress to the quarter-final.
Perhaps last night's performance could not quite match that lustre, though the pummelling his goal came in for was just the same. The semi-final was two and a half minutes old when Wayne Rooney had eased inside Atsuto Uchida and whipped in a fizzing shot. Neuer launched him towards it and touched the ball away.
Awareness saved Schalke's skin when a defence which was as incapable of contending with United's pace as Schalke's closest observers had feared allowed Antonio Valencia to cross for Javier Hernandez. Neuer stood tall and blocked the Mexican's shot. When a sweeping interchange between Patrice Evra, Rooney and Park Ji-sung sent Henandez through again, Neuer threw himself at the striker's feet.
And still only 15 minutes of a night of United dominance had elapsed. The seventh save – from Ryan Giggs, Neuer making himself into a huge barrier and thrusting a large gloved hand to his right with two minutes of the first half to run – was the best. So many opportunities had gone begging by then that you feared United would lose belief that they could actually smash through.
The second half had continued the pattern – Neuer tipping over a Michael Carrick header – when the goal was finally breached. There was something desperately unreasonable about the fact that Giggs managed to slip the ball through Neuer's legs after Rooney's magic had played him in.
Van der Sar probably thought he would have had some part to play on a night in which he appeared in his 13th Champions League semi-final, equalling Ricardo Carvalho's record.
His pre-match television interview offered a tantalising hint of what United fans have wanted to hear for weeks. Asked of his retirement plans, the Dutchman declared he would "make a decision tonight". So had he changed his mind? "Next question," he declared and moved on. His own instinctive save 10 minutes from time provided evidence that his reactions are just as sharp. His mind is made up, though.
And besides, the performance of the German 15 years his junior suggests this is the night we will be remembering for United's old and new goalkeeping guards sharing the same pitch.
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