Sir Alex Ferguson acclaimed his Manchester United side for producing one of the more devastating European performances of his 24-year tenure to overwhelm Schalke and put themselves on the verge of a third Champions League final in four years.
In a one-sided Champions League semi-final the Schalke goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, resisted almost unremitting pressure from Ferguson’s team before United finally established a position of command with two goals in the space of three minutes midway through the second half.
Wayne Rooney, exceptional in a slick and controlled team performance, set up Ryan Giggs to slide his shot past Neuer for the opening goal. Then Javier Hernández helped on Antonio Valencia’s cross for Rooney to give United what looks like an unassailable lead before the second leg next Wednesday at Old Trafford, where they are unbeaten all season.
“We’ve had some fantastic performances in Europe and Juventus [in 1999] will always be high on the list but this certainly ranks as one of the best,” Ferguson said. “Our concentration and the intensity of our play and the speed of our passing was outstanding. It was a really top performance and credit to the players for having the belief in themselves and the trust in one another.
“It was a fantastic atmosphere but it never cowed them once. They kept on playing their football. They had confidence and trust in each other. I think we are coming to a peak.”
United are now the overwhelming favourites to reach the final at Wembley on 28 May and are the first side to reach this stage of the competition without having conceded a goal on their travels. Yet Neuer was single-handedly threatening to make it a frustrating evening for the Premier League leaders at one point.
“In my time at United it’s the finest display of goalkeeping against us,” Ferguson said. “I’m sure there have been other feats but tonight I saw a really good one. He was incredible. We were getting frustrated towards the end of the first half and after his final save [of that half] I could see our players started walking back and a sense of frustration. That was something I had to address at half-time. But the Chicharito [Hernández] goal that was disallowed for offside [early in the second half] was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It showed we could beat the guy … but [it was] not easy.”
Neuer has announced he will leave Schalke at the end of the season but the Germany international is bound for Bayern Munich and he discounted the idea that he could take over from Edwin van der Sar. “Manchester United was never an option,” he said. “Only in the media.”
Van der Sar later reiterated that he would not change his mind about retiring and Ferguson also seemed resigned to the idea that Neuer would be staying in Germany. “I think he’s going somewhere else,” the United manager said. “We know [he’s going to Bayern].”
Neuer, applauded off the pitch by his team-mates, admitted they had been outplayed. “We had too much respect for Manchester United; we never got into the game.”
Schalke seldom looked like the side that had put seven goals past Internazionale over the two legs of their quarter-final and the defender Christoph Metzelder summed it up: “Against Inter everything we tried worked. Against United we couldn’t even try anything.”
Ferguson was enthralled with Giggs’s performance. “It’s a strange thing because his peak seems to have lasted so long now. When you get a player of 37 you think he will be showing signs of waning but I see no evidence of that. It doesn’t show any signs of receding at all. I just wish I could find a way to keep Giggs going for another 10 years. He’s an incredible man.”
United have now lost only one of their past 23 away matches in the Champions League and Ferguson said: “We’ve shown not only throughout this campaign but the past few years that we’ve got a way of playing away from home. Confidence and possession of the ball is important. We seem to be better away from home in Europe than anyone else.”
His team now head to Arsenal on Sunday looking to consolidate their position at the top of the Premier League, six points clear of Chelsea in second. “Sunday will be a different team,” Ferguson said. “That’s a very important game for us now.”