James Lawton: At his scene of old torment Rooney inspires United's serene progress

There was a little local, and at times even epic resistance from one obdurate opponent, but in the end Manchester United's latest assignment with history made a mockery of some of their labours this season.

There is one last, huge lifting of the challenge now but if it is true you can only beat what is in front of you, only drain the job of all uncertainties, this could scarcely have been improved upon. Sometimes it is possible to beat yourself but United never began to run such a risk. They were in tune, perfectly, with the matter of what they had to do.

Twenty-one players were striving for a place at the apex of European football – and one gave the distinct impression he had already arrived.

Whatever the fate of his team Schalke's much-desired goalkeeper Manuel Neuer looked like a man locked into a huge career trajectory. He produced in the first half the kind of screen test Hollywood agents drool over.

No doubt Sir Alex Ferguson would have joined them in different circumstances. But with the big, resolute man already said to be destined for Bayern Munich, there was not even the encouragement that he had found someone of impeccable credentials to go to the head of his list of potential replacements for Edwin van der Sar. Instead, the United manager could only curse the fact that he had in the Ruhr Valley come up against one of its steeliest products.

But for Neuer, United would surely have been contemplating events in Madrid tonight with the certainty that they were examining the size of the last hurdle facing their unlikely campaign to win their fourth European Cup long before Ryan Giggs finally put the giant meister keeper to the sword.

For so much of the going they consumed Schalke's even more outlandish ambitions. They outran them, outpassed them and looked for so long to be an in entirely different class. So much so that when Neuer was obliged to make his third reflex save before half-time Schalke's quarter-final destruction of the reigning champions, even ones as eroded as Internazionale, looked like some ultimate football aberration.

Raul, the great, ageing Spaniard, has been Schalke's talisman but long before the end he was made to look like a relic of some strange and ancient glory.

He was enlivened a little early in the second half when Schalke's coach Ralf Rangnick evidently decided that his team had nothing to lose and were thus launched at a United defence in which Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic looked so unruffled they might have been casually strolling around some luxury car showroom. Michael Carrick was able to easily pull strings in the middle and Giggs, before he compensated for some first-half profligacy with his easy strike, was able to pick his moments of penetration almost as though from memory.

Schalke were a team who had plainly run their course and had found themselves short of method and oxygen and anything like workable confidence.

It was a reality that Neuer had obscured quite monumentally at times but there is only so much one man can do and if Giggs successfully explored his limits, Wayne Rooney simply tore them down when he profited easily from a typically biting little run from the irrepressible Javier Hernandez.

Rooney had played with something approaching mastery and when he left near the end it must have seemed that his previously tormented departure from this field in the 2006 World Cup, when he left with a dark rage against the world after being sent off against Portugal, belonged in another lifetime. Also, quite a bit of this last season, which at times provoked questions about not only the draining of his talent but also the depth of his ambition.

In these last weeks, despite another firestorm of controversy, Rooney has made nonsense of those doubts which seemed to burn with an ever-growing legitimacy. Of course, he is now at the point of one of the great challenges of his career. Barcelona or Real Madrid are plainly lurking in different, infinitely higher terrain to that occupied by last night's opponents. Yet if there is a huge chasm still lying between the stadium in Gelsenkirchen and the one where Stiles, Best and Charlton won the great trophy for the first time in Wembley, it cannot be said that United looked anything less than entirely professional and proficient last night. Their finishing conspired with the brilliance of Neuer to delay the certainties dictated by the huge gap in class, but in the end they got it perfectly right.

United did, in the end, produce much more than required. They will operate at a much higher altitude at the new Wembley – for we have to assume that date has been booked – but they could not have covered the ground more securely last night.

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