Sometimes, you just know.
In yesterday’s match preview, I tried to convey that feeling as well as possible without explicitly saying it, so as not to seem overconfident or as if I was underestimating the opposition, or in other words, put the ‘jinx’ on.
But just like I had the unrelenting feeling that the goal would eventually come against Everton (and on a related note, that the lovely blonde-haired, blue-eyed lady I was watching with is ‘The Special One’), I just knew that last night was going to be a special one for United.
And so, through a frustrating first 60-odd minutes, underneath all of the colorful language that filled the house, I kept that unrelenting faith.
Fortunately, so did United, and it was rewarded in due time, not once, but twice in quick succession. Almost 70 minutes of frustration was made better in the span of a couple, and as a result, we’re 90 minutes away from a third Champions League final in four years.
A look at the match statistics, and it’s easy to see that United had the upper hand by a sizable margin, and it’s also easy to see that Manuel Neuer had a busy night on his end.
But the statistics don’t fully indicate just how dominant United were from start to finish, and they also don’t show just how much Neuer had a hand (or two, or more, so it seems!) in keeping United at bay for nearly 70 minutes.
Now, before we dissect either of those points, let’s not gloss over one very, very important fact.
To say that Schalke were poor defensively would be like saying I’m just a little pale. Speaking of ghosts, it seems that the hosts were all too willing to allow United to run at, over, around, and past them at will, without much real resistance.
And so we did, with Wayne Rooney’s early curling effort only the first of many shots that would be directed at the Schalke goal over the course of the 90 minutes. I mean, when both Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra have excellent chances to score with their feet, and Ryan Giggs is able to run like a 27-year-old instead of a 37-year-old for the better part of 90 minutes, what does that say about the quality of the defense United are going up against?
Every now and then, and especially early on, Schalke did make a little effort to push forward, but for the duration, it was apparent to any and all that there’d be only one deserving winner, and it was only a matter of whether or not we’d grab the proverbial bull by the horns.
You see, no matter how much the opponent might try to hand the game to you, you still have to put in the effort required to grab it, and therein was the issue for United. For a time, it looked like a repeat of last week’s draw at Newcastle, when United had opportunity after opportunity and failed to capitalize, with some of the misses being especially glaring. There was one such miss less than 15 minutes in, when Javier Hernandez seemed to surprise of the lack of a whistle, or perhaps that he had such a golden opportunity, when he was onside and with Neuer at his mercy but took his time and only managed what was a rather meek shot.
For all the opportunities that we managed to foil by our own poor finishing, there was the matter of the 6’5” brick wall that we were dealing with at the same time. Rare is it that I pay close attention to a keeper’s performance, but it was hard not to with the saves that Neuer made last night. I won’t turn this into a glorified Manuel Neuer scouting report, but it’s safe to say that, were Schalke’s keeper was a man with shorter limbs, less physical prowess, and lesser mental focus, the final scoreline could’ve been one that could have allowed Fergie to call on mostly reserves and still win comfortably on aggregate.
But in the end, there’s only so much that one man’s physical prowess and brilliance can do against a determined, relentless, focused team.
But still, thanks to the giant German, there’s still work to do to close the deal in the second leg, but if it’s one-way traffic like much of the first leg was, Schalke’s outfield players might as well not show up and United can spend 90 minutes taking shots at Neuer from various angles and distances to see just how many he can stop. Now that would be entertaining, I must admit, but even if Schalke come with a better approach than they did last night, you can expect United to match them and then some.
It’s easy to be complacent with a decided advantage heading into the home leg, but you can be sure that Fergie won’t allow for any drop-off, not when it’s imperative that focus, confidence, and motivation must remain as it is when you have the string of big matches that United have over the next couple of weeks. Some might hope that United could overlook Sunday’s match at Arsenal with Arsenal’s struggles or a Wednesday match in mind, or that we could take it easy against Schalke with our advantage and the following Sunday’s visit from Chelsea in mind.
But for all the hoping that they might do, they’re only grasping at straws. Sure, Schalke stunk up the joint, but watching last night, even a neutral can see how much United want it, and how so much is coming together at the right time.
Now, Wembley is 90 minutes away, and after Sunday’s visit to the Emirates, the Premier League title could be as well. And if anyone thinks we’re going to be denied from here, they either need to clone Manuel Neuer a couple of times over and stick ’em all in front of us, or more realistically, see this team for what it is.
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