Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

James Lawton: Manchester United can rise to their greatest challenge

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 04: Manuel Neuer of Schalke punches clear under pressure from Nani of Manchester United during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final second leg match between Manchester United and Schalke at Old Trafford on May 4, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 04: Antonio Valencia of Manchester United celebrates with his team mates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final second leg match between Manchester United and Schalke at Old Trafford on May 4, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 04: Anderson of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's third goal with his team mates during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final second leg match between Manchester United and Schalke at Old Trafford on May 4, 2011 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

it required a goal from one of Manchester United’s ultimate defenders, Bill Foulkes, in the tumult of the Bernabeu in 1968.

Roy Keane had to produce one of the most extraordinary pieces of motivational brilliance in 1999 and before Chelsea were overcome in Moscow three years ago there was the little matter of disposing of a team called Barcelona, thanks to a single goal in 180 minutes scored by Paul Scholes.

Such semi-final achievements seemed like stories from ancient, epic campaigns last night when another shot at the greatest prize in club football at Wembley later this month was achieved by a team which was greeted, understandably enough, not so much by confidence but the odd gasp of apprehension.

Yet the concern died quickly enough with the swift conclusion that if United had delved into the margins of their front-line resources there is, whatever the ebb and flow of recent form, rarely a shortfall of ambition and resolve.

Schalke are a poor, ill-formed team by the standards of Europe’s elite, but a remarkable campaign still had to be put to the sword.

The worry was that Sir Alex Ferguson had taken unnecessary risks, but then how else does a man make such a record of nerve and success?

Ferguson, astonishingly juggling the requirements of both the Champions League and a possible 12th Premier League title at the end of a season of unremitting struggle to find old veins of gold, had clearly weighed carefully the need to preserve key troops for Sunday’s potentially winner-takes all collision with Chelsea.

The result was a searing comment on the Schalke who overwhelmed the reigning champions Internazionale at San Siro in the quarter-finals.

Ferguson sent in the dog soldiers, some of whom will consider themselves lucky to make the Wembley bench.

Yet just as Keane played to his very limits despite knowing he would not make the final (because of a yellow card) against Bayern at the Nou Camp, the same could be said — in rather less demanding circumstances, it has to be allowed — of young men like Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson.

Gibson was the best example of someone utterly committed to making something of his time at Old Trafford despite a growing sense that his future may well rest elsewhere.

If there was any doubt about the wisdom of Ferguson’s strategy last night, Gibson soon had his boss chortling in the stands.

He sent in Antonio Valencia — an authentic thoroughbred — with a lacerating pass for the opening goal and then scored himself with a trademark drive.

For Ferguson there was, apart from the ease of his progress to a fourth European Cup final, a whole rash of bonuses, including two goals from Anderson.

Most heartening of all, perhaps, was the arrival of Darren Fletcher, so often the grit in the eye of United’s most dangerous opponents, a scuffling, relentless figures whose absence, through suspension, Ferguson mourned when Barca cut his team to pieces in Rome in 2009.

However any analysis of last night’s performance by the watching Barca coach Pep Guardiola will surely be shaped by the feebleness of Schalke.

Still, Guardiola will take home something that maybe runs deeper than the meaning of one mismatch.

It is that Manchester United, yet again, have found a way to create another moment when football history is the prize.

Only a fool, would discount the possibility that they might just seize it.

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