|Fabio & Evra perfect their slip catching stance ahead of the game last night!|
The first half turned into goalkeeping practice for Manuel Neuer who demonstrated his capabilities with several fine saves although questions must be asked about the lack of a clinical finish. United were almost unchallenged as they created chance after chance through the guile of Carrick and Giggs and the invention and workrate of Rooney. With Park and Valencia stretching the home side at each opportunity from the flanks, the tie could well have been decided within the first half an hour.
The Reds patience was rewarded mid-way through the second half as wonderful interplay between Rooney and Giggs set the Welshman clear to finally plant the ball in the seemingly impregnable Germans net. Just a few minutes later, Valencia released Hernández who fed the on-rushing Rooney to send the travelling waves of United fans into ecstasy. The rest of the match resembled a training ground routine but the visitors were unable to add to their tally ahead of the second leg next Wednesday.
This was definitely one occasion where simply watching the pictures in front of you tells the story and really there are very few major talking points to arise from the game that demand in-depth analysis but here are a few things I have found to discuss:
Goal Analysis - Giggs opener
The first goal last night finally arrived mid-way through the second half as frustration was beginning to set in. From start to finish it was wonderful to behold.
The picture below shows Rooney on the ball having collected a pass from Evra. The eventual scorer, Giggs is being guarded by Jurado (circled). Look at the amount of space that the Englishman has found himself in as he turns towards goal assessing his next option. What happened next, is that Giggs began a surge towards the box just as Hernández on the edge creates the space by dragging Metzelder by an intelligent movement to the right. Jurado makes no attempt to track the Welshman's run and is punished suitably.
|Rooney in space about to turn and play a wonderful reverse ball into Giggs' path|
Just a few seconds later, Giggs is clear in on goal with Jurado (circled) frozen in the realisation that his man is about to put his side behind. The massive hole that Giggs ran into, wonderfully created by Hernández means that he is free to guide the ball past Neuer. Seven Schalke defenders are in shot and not one is able to stop the move progressing to its inevitable conclusion.
|Jurado is stood motionless as the true realisation hits him that his man is about to strike.|
Carrick - time and space
Give Michael Carrick these two things and he will run the game. This is what happened last night with surprisingly little pressure being applied meaning that he had time to lift his head and pick out a team mate. Some of his play was majestic from the centre of the park last night and re-emphasised why he is so highly thought of by many of his peers in that position. What is also pleasing is the way he has reacted to the mistake that led to City's winner at Wembley. He quickly realised he was simply a fraction too late in off loading the pass and was cruelly punished by Touré and put this behind him as he knew his team required him to rise again.
What was also noticeable was the number of times he broke up play just as the home team looked to threaten. It goes to show how you do not need to be an aggressive ball winner to succeed in defensive midfield. Rarely will you see Carrick go to ground to win a tackle, a trait often perceived by United fans as a sure sign of lack of commitment. In the modern era, sliding aggressively into the tackle comes with it an inherent danger of yellow and red cards. Carrick's method, while understated, is proving effective especially in European games with stricter officials.
The Englishman also seems to flourish when partnered with a more dynamic team mate such as Fletcher, Giggs or Anderson. When Scholes is selected alongside, neither are particularly adept with making driving runs and displaying bursts of energy. This can mean they are liable to being over run when pressured as demonstrated by away league games at Liverpool and Chelsea (2nd half).
Rooney - the big performance on the big stage
It was a joy to watch United's talisman relish the limelight on the big stage once again last night. Throughout the game he found pockets of space in which to wield a huge influence over proceedings. The full range of his glorious repertoire were on display from incisive short and long range passing, dribbling and committing defenders to goals assists and finally goal scoring. Rarely will he get such time and space in which to ply his trade but he took full advantage to show Europe that the self styled "Big Man" was back and ready to stamp his authority across the remainder of the season.
What has also been noticeable since his return from suspension is the reduction in aggressive outbursts towards the official when things do not go his way. It is early days but hopefully a new found respect has been developed which can only help him from a disciplinary point of view whilst still retaining the fire in the belly that gives him the hunger to succeed.
What now for Michael Owen?
Conspicuous by his absence from the bench last night was Michael Owen. With the squad unable to call upon the services of leading scorer Berbatov last night, he would have expected to play a part at some stage. Instead, the manager was satisfied that packing the replacements with a mix of defenders and midfielders was enough with Rooney and Hernández on the pitch. It is a sad indictment on the current state of Owen's career that he does not warrant a spot on the bench in such a big game. It now seems likely he will be allowed to leave in the summer and it is hoped he finds a club capable of giving him regular football that his talent deserves. That will also free up a squad place for an emerging talent such as Welbeck or Macheda.
The Emirates awaits!
Next stop on the United tour brings them to the capital to face Arsenal on Sunday in a game where if three points are accrued then the title will be within touching distance and with the potential to secure it in front of a home crowd against Chelsea the following weekend. Recent results at the Emirates bode well for the Reds as speed on the counter attack has seen success in both the league and Europe. Whether Arsenal have an inferiority complex when they face United is open to question but they appear to lack their belief to overcome their rivals when the pressure is on. This last statement neatly sums up their season. A few weeks ago, they were fighting on all four fronts in an attempt to end their barren sequence without a trophy. A last gasp defeat in the Carling Cup final against Birmingham has precipitated a collapse of almost Devon Loch standards with exits from all competitions coming in quick succession. This culminated in a demoralising defeat to Bolton last weekend which was the final nail in their title aspirations this year.
Gunners fans will rightly point to all the talent they possess in their squad but the one key ingredient they lack is the one that United possess in huge quantity - mental toughness. This can manifest itself in many forms but the sheer will to win and inability to accept a cause is lost is not one that can be easily taught. It remains to be seen which Arsenal turn up on Sunday. Freed from the grip of pressure, the Gunners may well play in a manner that makes a mockery of recent form and the Reds must be wary of the wounded animal. They will like nothing more than to severely dent our title aspirations but with patience and our usual gameplan, United will be confident of success.
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