Giggs sends United giant step closer to Wembley
Manchester Utd 2
Manchester United had to get past the man called Manuel, but can now think about Spaniards at Wembley.
Schalke's accomplished 'keeper Manuel Neuer defied United for 66 minutes until Ryan Giggs, and then Wayne Rooney struck, took United to within touching distance of the Champions League final against either Barcelona or Real Madrid.
United's victory was studded with marvellous displays. As well as Giggs and Rooney, Michael Carrick was immense, proving that he can patrol and control midfield. Javier Hernandez did everything but score; he'll play worse than this and net a hat-trick. United were so good they were applauded off by the Schalke fans.
As the English print presses rolled on, headlines recording how United put Das Boot into Schalke, one thought inevitably occurred: how on earth had Inter Milan been so soundly thrashed in the quarter-finals by the Germans, whose fans were great but whose team looked the 10th-ranked side in the Bundesliga.
Raul was poor, Edu non-existent while Jefferson Airplane have probably put on better shows here than Jefferson Farfan. Only Neuer stood out. He was absolutely outstanding, the man standing between United and a five-goal lead. And that was just before the break.
It bordered on the incredible that United took 66 minutes before Giggs -- becoming the oldest player to score in the Champions League -- then Rooney found the back of the net. United had been so dominant, creating chances at will, but Neuer kept anticipating danger, kept making saves, resembling Jan Tomaszewski 1973 at times.
The first half could not have been more one-sided. United were exceptional, mixing up possession moves with sudden high-speed counters, racing through the gears and the yards. This was the Alamo and United had the Mexican sharpshooter.
Hernandez kept being denied by the magnificent Neuer. No wonder Ferguson was interested in bringing the gifted German international to Old Trafford but Bayern Munich appear to have already sealed the deal.
Neuer was immense here, a one-man rock that United kept running into. This was a really mature half of football from United, who recorded 12 shots, eight on target, but Neuer stood firm. Ferguson's two-man central midfield ruled the middle third. They kept releasing their attackers, Giggs sending Rooney free and then Carrick picking out Wayne Rooney, then Ji-sung Park.
Ferguson had gone for Schalke's throat, deploying Rooney behind Hernandez with Valencia pushing down the right, while Park and Patrice Evra stretched Schalke down the left. Yet it was Rooney, collecting Carrick's ball on the touchline, who threatened first from the left, quickly cutting in, ignoring the boos of the German fans, and bending in a shot that Neuer clawed away.
Still the red waves rolled across the Ruhr. Park was thwarted by Neuer, who then saved from Hernandez, following good approach work from the excellent Valencia.
Schalke briefly showed signs of life in the first half, Raul heading the ball down to Edu, whose looping shot was saved by Edwin van der Sar.
They adore Raul here, a Spanish flag proudly bearing the words of two local loves: 'Rock 'n' Raul'.
An adjacent banner proclaimed affection for another passion: 'Bier 2'.
United fans had spent the day drinking in the sunshine, then revelling in this first-half masterclass. Fabio, preferred to his brother Rafael at right-back, embarked on a long run that almost brought a goal.
Rooney shook off a bad challenge from Christophe Metzelder, whose mask could not disguise his identity or malevolent intentions.
The England striker, returning to the scene of his 2006 World Cup dismissal, was terrific, teasing a pass through to Park, who found Hernandez. The Mexican was onside, turned the ball on to his right foot but Neuer saved. Again.
Some of Rooney's crossfield passes were pure Paul Scholes, particularly when picking out Valencia. Hernandez was always lively, darting through, shooting wide after 25 minutes. Then Valencia lifted the ball across, Nemanja Vidic headed back and Giggs was denied by You Know Who. No wonder Bayern moved so quickly to acquire Neuer.
One man kept United at bay. Metzelder, the Phantom of the Opera, was having a nightmare, pulling down Rooney, who had broken clear. Still United pressed, Hernandez and Giggs went close and Fabio shot over.
The half ended with Rooney inviting Giggs to run at Neuer, who responded with another astonishing stop. New half, same story. Giggs whipped over a free-kick that Carrick met, flicking a header goalwards, only for Neuer to palm over. United continued to press and Neuer continued to defy them until those lightning strikes from Giggs and Rooney.
Schalke had some moments of hope as the second half progressed, but Vidic made some important clearances. When Atsuto Uchida crossed from the right, United's captain was alert to the danger, intercepting at the expense of a corner.
Then Raul, finally living up to his vaunted Champions League reputation, bent in a cross that Rio Ferdinand cleared.
These were mere attempted flea-bites on United's rhinocerous hide. And soon forgotten. After 66 minutes, United deservedly broke through. It required something special to beat Neuer. Rooney and Giggs duly obliged.
Rooney's reverse-pass was perfectly weighted for Giggs, who slid a low shot between Neuer's legs and in. Ageless, almost peerless, Giggs continues to be the man for all seasons for Manchester United.
One quickly became two. Hardly had United fans launched into a rousing rendition of "Giggs will tear you apart again" then United added a superb second.
Hernandez supplied the killer pass, sending Rooney through and his finish was expert. Neuer stood no chance as Rooney placed his shot past him.
With nine minutes remaining, Rooney departed to a flurry of boos from the locals and a standing ovation from the United hordes.
Their celebrations intensified at the final whistle. United are not at Wembley, yet but they are half way down the M6. (© Daily Telegraph, London)