Rooney destroys feeble Schalke to put United on verge of the final

Schalke 0 Manchester United 2

Veltins-Arena

That scoreline above might just as well read "Manuel Neuer 0, Manchester United 2" and the less said about the brilliant young German goalkeeper's Schalke team-mates the better.

Sir Alex Ferguson's team will surely go on from the second leg next week to another Champions League final, their third in four years, and when they remember this campaign in years to come, United's fans will struggle to recall who it was they beat in the semi-final. Ah, yes, Schalke. Played with about as much finesse as a bratwurst in a bun. Good goalkeeper, though.

The brilliant Neuer, 25 years old and first choice for Germany, was his team's first, second and third line of defence against a United team who utterly dominated this match. He made his first save in the third minute from Rooney and he held out until the 67th when at last Ryan Giggs slipped the ball through the legs of the Schalke goalkeeper and the spell was broken.

Neuer is good enough to be a United goalkeeper but has said before that he does not want to leave Germany when he departs Schalke at the end of the season. Should he end up, as expected, at Bayern Munich then we will be seeing much more of this talented player over the coming years. As for the rest of this Schalke team, they have surely run out of steam.

Make no mistake, United were exceptional. They recognised early on that the tenth-placed team in the Bundesliga were there for the taking and this might well have been a demolition job were it not for Neuer. There were 12 clear-cut chances for United in the first half alone, none more so than the throughball for Giggs right at the end of the half which Neuer ran out to meet and saved Giggs's shot.

In Rooney, the scorer of United's second goal, and Javier Hernandez, United have an attacking partnership that gets better with every game. Last night they ran Schalke's defence ragged, in particular the mask-wearing Christoph Metzelder who was reduced to the crudest of rugby tackles on Rooney in the first half.

As befits the Indian summer that he is enjoying, Giggs, at 37, was at his unplayable best. Raul Gonzalez, the former Real Madrid captain and only 33 himself, sought out his fellow veteran at the final whistle to swap shirts. Raul had barely had a kick. Giggs had run the game for United – and unlike Raul he is still playing for the one club he has dedicated his life to.

This was United's sixth away game in the competition and they have not conceded a goal in any one of those matches, a Champions League record. Last night, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand played like one of those experienced Italian central defensive pairings of which the English game was once so envious. They shut Raul and his Brazilian strike partner Edu out of the match.

Down the wings Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-sung simply overwhelmed the Schalke full-backs. It all came down to Neuer who was first beaten six minutes after half-time by Hernandez – a goal that was ruled offside – and faced 18 United attempts on goal, 11 of which were on target. The away team enjoyed 65 per cent of the possession but that does not convey just how one-sided this game had become.

There is no polite way of saying it: this tie is all but over. Schalke are surely just too far behind United to contemplate them overturning a two-goal lead at Old Trafford a week today. From then, United will be able to look forward to a Champions League final at Wembley 43 years after Sir Matt Busby's team won the club's first European Cup there, but the step-up in opposition will be huge.

Only as the scope of Schalke's weaknesses became obvious last night could you fully appreciate how fortunate United have been to avoid one of the two other semi-finalists who play their first leg tonight. By the time Rooney scored United's second goal with 69 minutes played, United began to think about their game at the Emirates against Arsenal on Sunday.

These two clubs do not currently have much in common. Arsenal have taken a lit match to their own season with their post-Carling Cup final slump. United have found their tempo at last, especially in Rooney and Hernandez. If this game goes according to current form then Sunday will be a very bad day for Arsène Wenger, and he has had too many of them lately.

The statistics say that Schalke had five attempts on target last night but it was Neuer's saves that stood out. Six of them in the first half were outstanding, among them a shot from Rooney that was tipped over the bar in the third minute. He got down to another from Hernandez in the 14th minute, getting enough on the ball to slow it down. A back post header from Giggs on 27 minutes was also blocked.

By the time Neuer came out to meet Giggs as he ran through on goal just before the break you half expected the goalkeeper to come out on top. After the break, Neuer kept Schalke in it for as long as he could, pushing a Michael Carrick header over the bar two minutes into the new half. For a short period, around the hour, United seemed to lose their way and the previous momentum of their attacks waned.

Then, on 67 minutes, they found their way through. Rooney dinked a ball through the defence for Giggs and this time he slotted his shot through Neuer's legs. Two minutes later, Valencia played in Hernandez and his cross was turned in by Rooney. Ferguson changed to a five-man midfield to shore the game up.

Even then there were chances for United to score more. It was just eight months ago that English football was asking itself whether it should be adopting the German model. Last night the only question was: how did this lot beat Internazionale in the previous round? Schalke have a wonderful stadium and great fans but that was scant consolation.

At the end of the game, the home side did an embarrassed shuffling farewell lap for their fans. It was their way of saying what everyone knew. United can book the London hotel for 28 May. They are going to Ferguson's fourth Champions League final.



Man of the match Rooney.

Match rating 6/10.

Referee C V Carballo (Spain).

Attendance 54,000.

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