So much for all those warnings about Schalke posing a threat to Manchester United. Well, most of them. Keeper Manuel Neuer more than lived up to his billing, acting as the game's premier show-stopper in a scoreless first half. But Jefferson Farfan was supposed to be coming back into form. We were told the electric home crowd would overwhelm the visitors. And the old fox Raul was going to come alive for just one, maybe two moments of magic.
None of that happened, of course, as the Red Devils dominated Schalke at the Veltins-Arena. The scoreline reads 2-0, but as anyone who watched the proceedings will tell you, it could have easily been 3-0 or 4-0 in the first half alone.
Those first 45 minutes were the Manuel Neuer show. Time and again, the 25-year-old keeper, who has announced that he'll be leaving Schalke when his contract expires, was like an octopus, stopping balls with his arms and legs. Javier Hernandez could have had two goals. Ditto Ryan Giggs. Wayne Rooney took his shots, as did workhorse Park Ji-Sung. Antonio Valencia swung in balls, linked up with Giggs and Rooney and pretty much had his way with Hans Sarpei.
You'd be hard-pressed to remember another half of football when so much sustained pressure resulted in a goose egg. The Red Devils had more shots (12) in the first half than they did in 90 minutes in either of their quarterfinal legs against Chelsea. Schalke also made little attempt to close down midfielder Michael Carrick, who made a game-high 56 passes in the first half, completing 91 percent of them. Now Carrick is a fair player who was coming off two subpar league games, but Schalke somehow made him look like a world-beater. For that, it should be very disappointed.
Patrik Stollarz/Getty ImagesIn the first half, Manuel Neuer made save after show-stopping save.
Neuer was the true star of the half. United has been flirting with the idea of bringing Atletico Madrid's David de Gea to Old Trafford next season, after Edwin van der Sar hangs up his boots. Sir Alex Ferguson and his brain trust must have been reconsidering their plans after the 0-0 first half.
But when your keeper is the best player on the pitch, chances are your team isn't. United's barrage of attacking options eventually resulted in a breakthrough in the 67th minute. Rooney faked a shot, only to slot a sweet pass to Giggs, who hit the ball through Neuer's legs. It was Giggs' 10th Champions League away goal and his first in Germany for 10 years.
Just two minutes later, Valencia got the ball to Chicharito. The young Mexican easily ran past his defender and passed the ball to Rooney, who more or less embarrassed Neuer with an all-too-easy finish. As has been the case with Rooney for the past couple of months, he was a dynamo all over the field -- dropping deep to collect the ball, surging forward to link up with Hernandez and Giggs, he did it all.
And how's this for clutch? More than half of Rooney's Champions League tallies, 13 of 23, have come in the knockout stages.
After Rooney's goal, the pressure was off United. It could start thinking ahead to the clash against Arsenal on Sunday as it was well on its way to erasing the bitter memory of being bounced out of last season's quarterfinals by Bayern Munich.
As for Schalke, it was a mere negative of the team that knocked out defending champion Inter Milan. It now heads back to Old Trafford in eight days knowing it'll need to rediscover the form that has seen it score 21 times in this season's competition -- including 11 in four matches in the knockout stage -- if it's to have the slightest of chances of reaching the final.
It's a long shot, to say the least. With two precious away goals, the Red Devils can all but book their ticket to Wembley, where they'll await the winner of the other semifinal between Barca and Real. That match, unlike Tuesday's, will most certainly not be such an easy contest.