It was not quite on a par with the unforgettable comeback in the Stadio delle Alpi 12 years ago but Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Manchester United’s 2-0 victory over Schalke 04 as “one of the best” performances the club has produced under his management.
By Jason Burt
Back then, United overcame a two-goal deficit against Juventus to progress to the final, on the way to that famous treble. This time, they emphatically defeated Schalke in this first leg to make it unthinkable that they will not reach their third final in four years. And this one at Wembley.
“We’ve had some fantastic ones,” Ferguson said when asked about United’s European victories. “Juventus away was high on the list but I think it [tonight] certainly ranks as one of the best … it was a top performance, I credit the players and the belief in themselves and trust in each other, it was a fantastic performance.”
United’s win would have been far more emphatic but for a remarkable display from Schalke’s goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer who has been linked with a move to United to replace Edwin van der Sar when he retires at the end of the season.
Ferguson brushed aside a question as to whether he was still interested in Neuer – who appears set to join Bayern Munich – but was full of praise for the 25-year-old German international.
“In my time at United it is probably the finest display of goalkeeping against us,” Ferguson said. “I’m sure there have been other feats but tonight we have seen a very good one.” Neuer had even deflated the United players with a string of saves.
“There was a frustration towards the end of first-half when he made that final save from Ryan [Giggs’ header],” Ferguson said. “When that move broke down I sensed some frustration with the players walking back. I had to correct that at half-time.”
Ferguson said the key had actually been a disallowed effort from Javier Hernandez early in the second-half. “I think when Chicarito scored at 0-0 but it was offside, it showed the other players they could beat this goalkeeper!” he explained.
“He was fantastic. It was one of the best performances I have ever seen against Manchester United. But that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. It broke the frustration and proved they could beat the guy. Not easy.”
Ferguson said that his — and his team’s — experience in this competition was now proving to be a key to their success. “The concentration issue is certainly important away from home in Europe,” he stated.
“There is a different tempo at times, and also over the last two or three years we have a way of playing in Europe away from home. In fact we seem to be better away from home in Europe than anywhere else.”
That concentration meant that United became the first team to go through this competition without conceding a goal away from home. Those six clean sheets also meant that Van der Sar also became the first goalkeeper to reach 50 shut-outs in the Champions League. They weren’t the only records set.
There was also high praise for Giggs who, aged 37 years and 148 days, became the oldest player to score in the Champions League, beating the record of Filippo Inzaghi (37 years and 86 days) and Ferguson said: “It’s a strange thing because his peak seems to have lasted so long now. A player of 37 should be showing signs of waning but I don’t see any evidence of that.
“We rest him. He won’t be playing on Sunday (away to Arsenal in the Premier League) but may play next Wednesday (in the return leg against Schalke). He does not show any signs of receding at all. He’s an amazing man.”
Schalke had won all five of their previous home ties but this was an astonishingly one-sided contest while United had previously not won a knock-out tie in the Champions League in this competition in this country.
That all changed. “It all did go wrong,” admitted Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick. “Manchester United attacked constantly and but for Manuel Neuer it could have been two or three nil at half-time. He is the best goalkeeper in the world right now. He is absolutely top-class.”
Rangnick said his team would attack in the second-leg. “Why give up? Maybe they feel too secure and we could spring a surprise. Of course we are going to attack it,” he added.