Ferguson's calculated gamble pays off proving he holds all aces
Whatever the improbability of failing to negotiate this tie, Alex Ferguson rolled the dice last night. No doubt about it. Even approaching 70, the Manchester United manager still has the capacity to surprise, to take a risk.
He had promised changes. But no one expected this many. Not a completely experimental defence and a starting line-up that had not been fielded before. Not in a Champions League semi-final.
It is unimaginable that other managers would have lined up with this team of, well, under-studies. Not even Jose Mourinho would have been so bold; certainly not Carlo Ancelotti. Arsene Wenger might have done.
But maybe not for this occasion. This wasn't a Carling Cup outing, after all.
Ferguson had said he would have the "nucleus" of a side that would navigate a way to the final but rarely can an occasion such as this, so close to the ultimate club prize, have been entered into with a Premier League match over-shadowing it in terms of priority.
Eight changes were made from the team that lost to Arsenal at the weekend; nine from the one that had performed so well in Germany. Uefa would not have been pleased that its showpiece was so diminished.
For Ferguson this was all about weighing up last night's opponents, deciding they are not up to it -- and concentrating on Chelsea. He could, feasibly, make 10, but more likely nine, changes for Sunday with Edwin van der Sar and one of either Nani or, more probably, Antonio Valencia likely to retain their places.
This was John O'Shea's 71st appearance in this competition but never could he have imagined that he would be captaining the side on such an important night.
There was some security on the bench but most of the big guns -- Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Ji-Sung Park -- were in the directors box. It was a calculated gamble by Ferguson, of course.
The Germans were not going to transform themselves into a team capable of inflicting the necessary damage to overturn the aggregate. They can score goals and are dangerous going forward but that defence cannot defend. And so it proved.
But it also meant United played fast and loose -- and more than a little disjointed -- at times.
The security of their own defence was deserted and the nature of that Schalke goal will have caused alarm for Ferguson -- with Chris Smalling misplacing a pass as he ran out with the ball and then a clearance ricocheting off Jonny Evans to allow Jose Manuel Juraldo to slam the ball into the net.
By then it was pretty much over. Goals from Valencia, running on to Darron Gibson's astute pass and then one from the much-maligned young Irishman himself, should have killed it as they gave United a 4-0 aggregate advantage.
But that Juraldo goal made it unnecessarily ragged.
Earlier Valencia's goal had prompted a chorus of "Wembley" from the home supporters but that stopped with Schalke's reply.
Of course United were still going to the final but it wouldn't be as smooth as they had hoped until deep into the second half when Anderson converted the third goal.
And it was unthinkable that Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic would have combined to make the mistakes committed by their understudies. Evans' inability to anticipate, his propensity to commit rash fouls, continue to raise doubts over his long-term viability.
But United's defenders weren't the only ones blundering. Gibson's goal owed much to a horrendous error by Manuel Neuer who had, Ferguson said, produced the best goalkeeping performance against a United side last week.
On a list of potential successors for Van der Sar, he will have slipped back a notch or two when he permitted the first-time shot to cannon off his leg and into the goal. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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