“Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Wembley, que sera sera!”
The twist to the lyrics of the iconic song originally performed by Doris Day rang out through Old Trafford, as a much changed Manchester United side cast aside all lingering doubts, to comfortably book their place in the 2011 Champion’s League final, to take their place alongside Barcelona, in challenging for Europe’s top honours.
Led by John O’Shea, deputising as captain for the evening, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team saw out the task at hand, to run away comfortable winners with a 4-1 victory, giving them a 6-1 lead over the two legs. Such ease of victory is a rare accomplishment in such late stages of the competition. And with that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) The gamble on the squad paid off
With a 2 goal lead against a team that were considered vastly inferior, it would have been so surprise to find a few players that had featured being rested, particularly when one considers the flat and somewhat fatigued display shown against Arsenal the previous Sunday.
However, the fact that 9 changes had been made would undoubtedly have been considered a risk. Although Schalke were poor the previous week, the idea of such a major change to the starting line up will have been thought of as a gamble in a competition where “there are no easy games”. Fortunately, despite a fairly brighter start from the German side, the tie was soon put beyond doubt as Gibson thread a well placed pass through to Valencia to charge into the box and coolly finish past Neuer after 26 minutes.
The game was made to look even more comfortable when 5 minutes later, Gibson fired a well-struck shot that should have been comfortably collected by Neuer but instead found itself deflecting off his hands and in to the net and despite a Jurado claiming a goal back only minutes later, the semi-final already looked beyond United’s German counterparts. Despite the risk taken with the squad, one has to applaud the efficiency and professionalism displayed by Ferguson’s men in getting the job done, and in failing to allow Schalke a lifeline in finding their way back into contention.
Although it was a poor side that United faced, the possibility of complacency was always there unless business had been dealt with appropriately. On a note about Neuer, Schalke’s goalkeeper that has made headlines of late, although he had a poor performance, his standing as one of the world’s top ‘keepers should not be called into question. Perhaps his error for Gibson’s goal threw him off for the rest of the game, regularly showing his signs of frustration and perhaps annoyance at the lack of a challenge posed against United. Whatever the reason, it was not the performance that many will have expected for someone of such high standard, and will certainly have not looked positive in the closing stages of his career at Schalke.
2) Resting players at this stage is a luxury
The opportunity to give players a night off at the business end of the season is a rarity, especially when said side are challenging for both European and domestic honours, and the fact that United were able to make so many changes without suffering the ramifications will have been pleasing for the coaching staff, particularly when players will be needed to be at their peak for what could be seen as a title-decider the following Sunday against Chelsea. The possibility of a fresh starting line up will certainly maximise their chances of success and getting the result necessary in solidifying their advantage at the top of the table.
The likes of Hernandez and Rooney, as well as Ferdinand and Vidic will have benefited from some respite, and will have been comforted by the fact that their understudies were able to fill in with competence and do what was required of them without setback. At the same time it will have provided a chance for an “audition” of sorts for potential squad members for the title run in and indeed the final itself, with many taking the opportunity to try and make an impression at a time when squad selection will have to be considered extremely carefully.
The likes of Anderson, Berbatov, Valencia, Nani and others all aimed at putting in a performance that would leave the management with something to think about. In truth, it could be said that nobody played badly, but then against opposition that were far below par, some may say it was to be expected. The coming games will tell as to who is likely to get the chance to represent United in the line up at Wembley.
3) Berbatov is not to be forgotten
Wednesday night provided Dimitar Berbatov with the perfect opportunity to give Ferguson reason not to forget him at Old Trafford, despite his clear preference for the Rooney/Hernandez partnership that has proved so successful of late. This has been quite the development when one considers Berbatov’s standing as the League’s top scorer, but the emergence of Javier Hernandez has been hard to ignore. However, for the return leg against Schalke, an energetic performance was seen from the big Bulgarian forward. Although he did not find himself on the scoresheet one cannot deny his contribution.
He was to be found everywhere, looking to get involved with play, often finding himself on the left in the first half for example, even getting back to defend set pieces appropriately. A way to describe it may be to consider it a performance on behalf of his team, working well with those around him in trying to create chances, culminating in him setting up Anderson’s second goal, a selfless act when he could have easily taken it on himself. A well-deserved round of applause was given upon his exit for Michael Owen late on, who incidentally provided evidence for his efficacy has a substitute, looking sharp and generally providing a threat. The fact that Ferguson has four strong strikers at his disposal will certainly be a comforting thought at such a late stage of the season.
4) Anderson doubled his career tally at United…. in one game
2 goals, 127 appearances. Now, 4 goals and 128 appearances. If there was one player that could sum up United’s performance on Wednesday evening, then one could look to Anderson as an example to demonstrate the energy and positive play that gave United such an attacking threat. The young Brazilian midfielder looked lively, always willing to take the ball forward and impose himself on the Schalke back line, as well as looking to carve open the defence and create chances to score.
One argument has always been that he has not scored enough in his time at Old Trafford, so one can imagine the surprise when he popped up with two goals in one evening! The first was a strong finish after persevering in winning the ball from the defender to slot past. The second came when Berbatov found himself open on goal, only to slip a pass to an open Anderson to tap in and to add insult to injury. Of course, United always looked to add more to their tally, especially with the risk of a miraculous comeback almost non-existant. Constant calls of “shoot!” from the United faithful backing up the attacking mood United found themselves in, turning into a night to enjoy instead of tension that some may have expected.
As well as this, one must take into account the good performance of the makeshift defensive unit that had been put together, doing their job adequately in not allowing mistakes to happen and provide Schalke with chances to claw their way back into the tie.
5) United are going to Wembley
Regardless of what some may say about the quality of United’s German opponents, one must remember that this is the same team that decimated Inter Milan in the previous round. The fact that United swept them aside is not to be scoffed at, and to reach the Champions League final is an achievement that is not to be dismissed. The chance for honours is one that is tantalisingly close and Barcelona will provide the ultimate in opposition in the way of European glory.
Although the Catalan side have had their glistening image dented somewhat by the antics in “El Clasico” of late, the quality of their side is unquestionable, and it will take tactical superiority as well as perfect team selection to give Sir Alex Ferguson the chance of bringing another European Cup back to Old Trafford, as he so craves. Barcelona will more than likely be favourites for the trip to Wembley, but one must say United have proved they have the quality to make it to the final, therefore also possess the quality to give them a chance at defeating the Spanish League leaders. The United faithful have every reason to be in high spirits for the coming weeks.
Read more of Zayd’s articles at Red Flag Flying High