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Manchester United FC can all but smell the Wembley turf after taking a huge step towards a third UEFA Champions League final in four seasons with victory at FC Schalke 04.
United, appearing in their 12th semi-final, completely dominated a Schalke side new to this stage of the competition and got the victory their superiority deserved through strikes from Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney. The winning margin would have been greater but for the brilliance of home goalkeeper Manuel Neuer who made a string of fine saves before United finally broke through with two goals in three minutes midway through the second period, leaving Schalke with a mountain to climb in next Wednesday's return.
First impressions can be deceptive and so it proved here when Schalke midfielder Alexander Baumjohann forced a save from Edwin van der Sar after 29 seconds. It was in the other direction that the traffic would flow, virtually incessantly, for the rest of the match.
United's defensive impregnability had been the main feature of their away performances but here it was all about their attack, with Rooney in inspirational form on the ground where he lived the nightmare of a FIFA World Cup red card against Portugal in 2006. The England forward set the tone in the third minute when picking up the ball on the left corner of the box and curling a shot that, via a slight deflection from Atsuto Uchida, was headed for the far corner until Neuer got a fingertip to the ball.
United were looking dangerous every time they went forward. In the 14th minute Javier Hernández was put clear by Park Ji-Sung but failed to beat Neuer, and the Mexican then lashed a shot wide of the far post after getting clear on the right. For United beating the inspired Neuer was proving easier said than done. After throwing out a hand to thwart Giggs's downward header, the Germany goalkeeper stood tall to foil him again after Rooney had sent the Welshman running through on goal on the stroke of half-time.
The second period brought no respite for the hosts. Within moments of the restart Neuer turned over a Michael Carrick header, then Giggs blazed wide after doing the hard bit by wrongfooting two defenders. The Schalke supporters kept up their noisy backing, though, and their hopes were raised after 52 minutes when Jefferson Farfán's pace opened up United's left side and his half-cleared cross fell for José Manuel Jurado, but the Spaniard spurned the chance.
Schalke showed only briefly as an attacking force and United eventually got their goals. The breakthrough arrived after 67 minutes when Rooney ran infield from the left and, holding off Peer Kluge, slipped a pass through to Giggs who put the ball through Neuer's legs to become the oldest player to score in the competition. Two minutes later it was two as Rooney collected a threaded pass from Hernández and slipped a first-time finish low to Neuer's right.
The Liverpudlian Rooney's new Twitter account revealed he was listening to the Beatles in the build-up to this match. Schalke may have scored five at San Siro but recovering from this hard day's night at Old Trafford will take some doing.
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