Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said he “wrestled” with a decision to omit several first-choice players from the second Champions League soccer semifinal with Schalke. He needn’t have worried.
United set up a meeting with Barcelona in the May 28 final at Wembley Stadium in London by winning 4-1 at Old Trafford last night to advance 6-1 over the two games. Anderson scored twice following goals from Antonio Valencia and Darron Gibson.
Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were among eight players rested from the team that started the 1-0 loss to Arsenal four days ago, which left United three points ahead of Chelsea atop the Premier League ahead of their May 8 matchup at Old Trafford. Ferguson said he couldn’t have made the changes had the first-leg lead over Schalke been slimmer than two goals.
“You have to trust the players sometimes,” Ferguson told reporters after the match. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I wrestled with it for a few days but the Arsenal result forced the situation.”
Schalke, which had ousted last year’s winner Inter Milan to reach its first Champions League semifinal, never threatened to make Ferguson regret his choices.
Gibson, a midfielder who’s been criticized by some United fans, was the dominant figure in the early stages of the game. The Irishman regularly broke up Schalke’s attacks before the visitor could get to a defense shorn of its regular starters.
Gibson set up the opening goal after gaining possession near the halfway line. His pass freed Valencia to shoot past Manuel Neuer after 26 minutes and Gibson added the second five minutes later when German national team goalkeeper Neuer allowed his drive to go past him.
Jose Manuel Jurado cut the deficit in the 35th minute by slamming a shot past Edwin van der Sar, though that failed to unsettle the home team. Goals from Anderson in the 72nd and 76th minutes emphasized the superiority of United’s second string.
“If you look at a comparison of the second 11, the quality of the players certainly stands out,” Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick told reporters. “Most Bundesliga teams would like to have that level of quality in their first team.”
Manchester United has now qualified for the final of Europe’s elite club competition three times in the past four seasons. The Red Devils’ last appearance ended in defeat when Barcelona matched their tally of three European Cup titles with a 2-0 victory in the 2009 final in Rome.
“The problem with Rome is that we didn’t turn up and produce the football we knew we were capable of,” midfielder Ryan Giggs, who has played on two of United’s three European Cup-winning teams. “Hopefully in the final we can prove what a good team we are.”
Barcelona, which is going for its third straight Spanish league title, features FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, who has a Champions League-leading 11 goals this season, as well as six starters from the Spain team that won the World Cup last year.
Though his team wouldn’t ever underestimate an opponent laden with such talented players, it won’t be scared either, Ferguson said.
“We are playing a fantastic team but we can’t be frightened out of our skins because of that,” he said. “Our job is to find a solution to playing against them.”