See, all of that nervousness was for naught.
With two away goals in the bag and the massive Manchester United-Chelsea showdown looming on Sunday, it was no surprise that Fergie chose to field a less than full strength starting lineup for the second leg of United’s Champions League semifinal with Schalke.
Unsurprising as the decision was, or at least should’ve been, it still generated some nerves and doubt among many, with Dimitar Berbatov, recently relegated to a bit-part role, as the lone striker, and Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson, and Anderson all having received their share of criticism and at one time or another this season.
Were United overlooking and underestimating their opponents, with a bigger fish to fry come Sunday? Could Schalke take advantage of a weakened and perhaps less inspired United team and pull off a stunner like their quarterfinal win at the San Siro against Inter?
If there’s anything that this season has taught us, it’s to expect the unexpected, and the unexpected did indeed happen, but it wasn’t the above, as a couple of unlikely heroes stepped up and delivered in United’s decisive 4-1 win on Wednesday night.
Gibson, if nothing else, is renowned for his shooting ability, and Manuel Neuer found out about that shooting ability first-hand, when Gibson sent one of his trademark rockets right off of Neuer’s waiting hands. Unfortunately for Neuer, instead of getting a favorable bounce as he might have last week, the ball pinballed off of his hands, off of the post, and in. Now, that’ll go down as what folks like to call a ‘howler’, but to be fair, Gibson’s shot was what folks like to call a ‘screamer’, so he should be happy he still had his hands after that one, right?
As memorable as it no doubt was for Gibson to score in a Champions League semifinal at Old Trafford, an equally memorable moment occurred mere minutes before that, when he threaded as pretty a through-ball as you’ll see to Antonio Valencia, who finished coolly past Neuer to fully punish Schalke for sloppily giving the ball away moments earlier. For a second there, if you weren’t watching closely enough, you could have mistakenly thought it was ’18’ on the back of that shirt and and not ’28’, especially since the wearer of that shirt was also occupying a starting role in United’s midfield.
So, it took a ‘weakened’ United side little more than half an hour to do in the second leg what it took almost 70 minutes for a full-strength United side to do in the first leg, and that two-goal advantage on the night and four-goal lead on aggregate put the tie all but beyond Schalke’s reach, though there might have been a few nervous folk when Schalke capitalized on one of United’s few mistakes on the night to finally put one past Edwin Van der Sar.
Enter unlikely hero #2 to truly finish it off. Prior to Wednesday night, Anderson had scored all of two goals in more than 120 appearances for United, one of which came in December in the 1-1 draw against Valencia that saw us wrap up top spot in our group. True enough, he’s not paid to score goals on the regular, but one goal for every 60-odd matches played is not the return that anyone expected when he was signed almost four years ago.
It seems, however, that Ando took a little extra shooting practice ahead of Wednesday night, or he put on the right pair of boots, because if not for Neuer’s physical gifts, the celebrations could have well and truly started with more than a half hour still to play. However, Neuer made up for denying the Brazilian one goal by barely getting a touch on a 72nd minute effort as it went under his arm and into the back of the net. Less than five minutes later, he doubled his tally on the night and for his United career with the simplest of tap-ins after being set up by Berbatov.
Almost as important as the goals themselves is what preceded them. On his first, he stayed with it after initially going to ground after Nani’s pass for him had come in, getting back up and calmly sending a low effort on target. Some players could have stayed down, frustrated, as the ball was cleared away, or taken a hurried shot, but it was all effort and all coolness, calmness, and collectedness on his part in that moment. For his second, it was all about smart positioning and making the right run to be perfectly placed to take advantage of a stranded Neuer.
Could it be that Wednesday night was a true turning point for those two? Only time will tell, but being able to perform well on that kind of stage has to be a source of inspiration and confidence even a seasoned vet, and with a lot of question marks when it comes to the future of United’s midfield, the opportunity still remains for that duo to state their claim for the future.
For the present though, we’re now in our third Champions League final in four seasons, and come three weeks from Saturday, we’ll be facing off against Barcelona at Wembley in a rematch of the 2009 final. There are some that might disparage our achievement, but to make the Champions League final in any given year is no small feat, let alone doing it three times in only four years.
Sure, we didn’t have the toughest group in the lot, Chelsea were our toughest opponent in the knockout stage, and Schalke might be considered one of the weakest semifinalists in recent memory, but put simply, it’s not about who you face, and there is nothing insignificant about going through 12 Champions League matches without defeat and with allowing just four goals in 1080 minutes of football. And along the way, we’ve torched some real demons, scoring wins in Spain, at Stamford Bridge, and in Germany, all places where history, recent and/or distant, was unfavorable.
With all of the above in mind, it’d be ridiculous for anyone to count us out against Barcelona, home country advantage or not.
For now though, the focus turns to Sunday’s match against Chelsea, and if we can hold serve at Old Trafford like we have done throughout the season, it will position us to definitively wrap up the Premier League title at Blackburn a week from Saturday. We’ll be seeing the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic, and Rooney back in action then, but who knows, it could be another unlikely hero who delivers the performance or moment that puts the punctuation mark on a great week for United, in a season that’s been greater than anyone might have expected.
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