Champions League – Man United should progress… shouldn’t they?

by Ger McCarthy

Manchester United should have enough quality to see off Schalke 04 in Wednesday night’s Champions League semi final as long as they approach the game correctly and produce a professional display writes Ger McCarthy.

When the final whistle finally shrilled at a sun-kissed Emirates Stadium in London last Sunday it was the Arsenal fans who were singing loudly while the travelling Manchester United supporters and players could only stand with their heads in their hands. An opportunity to place one arm around the Barclays Premier League trophy was missed as a lone Aaron Ramsey strike sealed a 1-0 victory for Arsenal over their hated rivals. That surprise loss has allowed Chelsea back into the title picture and next Sunday’s clash at Old Trafford is already being billed as the most pivotal fixture in this year’s title race.

One Eye On Wednesday?
Manchester United will need to have their best players fit and available for Sunday’s showdown with Carlo Ancellotti’s men as Chelsea require an away victory to draw level at the top with United. A point at the Emirates Stadium last weekend would have taken much of the sting out of United’s upcoming joust with the Pensioners but a tired performance lacking the usual spark of previous victories meant Sir Alex Ferguson’s men left pointless.

United weren’t bad on the day but just couldn’t produce a killer pass or clinical finish too see off the Gunners. Ferguson’s side were fortunate not to have their Captain Nemandja Vidic sent off for a blatant handball which denied Robin Van Persie a direct header on goal. Whilst that decision (or lack of it) from the match officials dominated much of the after match debate the undeniable truth to emanate from the encounter was United’s failure to grab what would have been a vital win or draw at the expense of a side they have seen off quite easily in the recent past.

There is little doubt United will have had one eye on Wednesday night’s Champions League semi-final second leg at home to Schalke 04 but the way Park Ji-Sung switched off to allow Ramsey place the ball in the net for Arsenal’s winner was symptomatic of a listless, tired and uninspiring display from the Old Trafford club.

Schalke have nowhere near the in-depth quality that Arsenal possess but despite United’s storming display in the first leg in Gelsenkirchen whichever starting XI Sir Alex puts out will need to perform to their optimum to prevent any thoughts of a comeback from the Bundesliga outfit. How should they go about this? Quite simply by starting the second leg with conviction and setting the tempo from the first minute.

The Carrick Issue
Wednesday night’s encounter is tailor made for Michael Carrick to stamp his authority on the tie by getting on the ball as often as possible and spraying the ball around to keep his side on the front foot. Carrick has not been at his best for some time but I believe that is down to the player being asked to play as an out and out defensive midfielder which is not his where his greatest strengths lie.

Whilst a Tottenham player Carrick would often bring the ball out of defence lay off a pass and surge forward to join the attack. At United Ferguson has the England international playing a much more deep lying role as a sort of protector in front of his back four ( a la Royston Maurice Keane). There have been plenty of occasions during the season when United have held onto a lead rather than break from deep and look to add another goal or two as in previous campaigns. I believe this is down to having United’s two central midfielders playing further back the pitch and less inclined to get forward.

Carrick’s role in making sure United don’t concede appears more important than getting further up the pitch in an attacking role. This has made the Red Devils harder to beat but less swashbuckling than in previous campaigns but no one at the club will complain if the Premier League and Champions League trophies are annexed before season’s end.

Would The Real Schalke Please Stand Up
United safely negotiating Wednesday night’s second leg following an impressive 2-0 win in Gelsenkirchen is expected by almost every pundit simply because Schalke have been so poor of late. In the intervening period Schalke maintained their 10th place in the Bundesliga standings following a 4-1 hammering away to Bayern Munich.

It is almost impossible to believe that this is the same Schalke 04 side that fired seven past Inter Milan’s in their 7-2 aggregate Quarter-Final victory over the reigning champions not to mention the professional display in seeing off Valencia in the Round of 16. The Royal Blues have endured a torrid domestic season and endured a change of manager with Ralf Rangnick taking over from Felix Magath only a few short months ago.

There can be no excuses for the pitiful display produced by Schalke at home to United in the first leg though. A performance so devoid of passion and effort (the most basic requirements of any team at home in front of their fans) got exactly what it deserved. Nothing. The fact Schalke has little to play for but pride at Old Trafford on Wednesday evening has taken away much of the tension you usually associate with a Champions League last four encounter.

Sir Alex Ferguson will not care one iota about Schalke’s current woes and is probably more concerned with reports of an injury to Wayne Rooney which could see the striker miss out. The Manchester United manager may even rest many some of his best players with one eye on Chelsea the following Sunday and such a decision will take away much from the Champions League last four tie.

All that matters is qualifying for Wembley and even a Manchester United side devoid of two or three regulars should have enough quality to see off Schalke 04.

Wednesday May 4th 2011,
Champions League Semi Final Second Leg,
Old Trafford, Manchester,
Manchester United vs. Schalke 04
(Manchester lead 2-0 on aggregate)

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