By Preben Gietz
Manchester United returns home with a comfortable two goal advantage after beating Schalke 04 2-0 in the first leg of the Champions League semi final. If not for the outstanding Manuel Neuer, United may have led by three or four goals at half time. The German goalkeeper, who some consider to be the best in the world, kept his team in the game with numerous incredible saves. Two goals, only minutes apart, midway through the second half ultimately gave United the win.
Schalke lined up as expected in a 4-4-2 formation. Coach Ralf Rangnick was forced to leave out center back Benedikt Howedes due to injury. Joel Matip moved into his spot alongside Christoph Metzelder.
There was pace and conviction to the game right from the kick off. In the opening ten minutes both teams found acres of space in the center of the field resulting in very little midfield play. The ball moved quickly into the offensive third.
Alexander Baumjohann had the first attempt on goal in the opening minutes with a shot from 30 yards right at Edwin van der Sar. Moments later Wayne Rooney wound up on the left, cut inside past Uchida and curled the ball to the far corner only to be denied by the first of many excellent saves from German international Manuel Neuer.
After frantic opening minutes, United took control of the game. Schalke struggled to hold on to the ball. Neuer’s next save was forced in the 14th minute when Chicharito appeared just yards from goal, with Hans Sarpei playing him onsides. It was Chicharito again after 26 minutes when he ran onto a Antonio Valencia cross from the right, taking the ball past Joel Matip, then firing wide from close range.
United’s relentless pressure continued. Schalke was not able to exert any pressure on the ball and close down spaces. A Ryan Giggs header from a Nemanja Vidic cross provoked another incredible right-handed save from Neuer.
Just before halftime, the visiting supporters thought their team would take the lead with Giggs running at Neuer, who stayed on his feet and blocked the shot.
Schalke was fortunate to get into the changing rooms without having conceded a goal. United was the vastly superior team in the first half. Michael Carrick did a fine job orchestrating the United game from the center. The German side failed to put him under any pressure. Rooney, as he so often does, dropped back into midfield to collect balls, which created trouble for Schalke as he was not picked up.
Not much changed in the second half as United continued to create chances. Notably, Giggs picked up the ball in the box, faked out two defenders and then missed the goal from close range with an awkward finish.
Just when Schalke appeared to get a grip on the game, partly due to substitute Peer Kluge strengthening the midfield, Giggs latched on to a wonderful pass in between the two center backs from Rooney to put United up one goal to nil. Moments later, in the 69th minute, Chicharito set up Rooney for an easy finish that gave United a deserved two goal margin.
This seems to be an impossible deficit to overcome for Schalke in the second leg at Old Trafford next Wednesday. Tonight, the team was not able to close down spaces in the midfield. Carrick and Giggs were able to connect passes and move the ball up the field with ease.
The center back pairing of Metzelder and Matip looked shaky throughout. There were gaping holes in Schalke’s defense, specifically between the two center backs. This led to United’s first goal with Rooney splitting the defenders with a wonderful pass. Rooney’s and Chicharito’s quick and agile play caused major problems, especially for Metzelder.
While United is the superior team, Schalke certainly played one of their worst games in their Champions League campaign. With nothing left to play for in the Bundesliga, Schalke must concentrate on getting a good result in the return leg and make sure they win the German Cup against second division side Duisburg.