Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest regret in football is that his Manchester United side have not dominated Europe the way they have conquered the Premier League – but the way his improving side totally outclassed Schalke to all but book a place in the Champions League Final at Wembley on May 28 surely gave him one of his most satisfying nights.
The genius of Fergie is the way he knows how to bring his side to their peak at the business end of the season. And make no mistake this United side is good enough to rank alongside any of the great sides the master has produced in his 25 years at Old Trafford.
The media have spent all season trying to write off Wayne Rooney following England’s disastrous World Cup in South Africa when United’s marquee player was a pale shadow of his former self. But Rooney is back to his glorious best and adds the priceless touch of a master craftsman to a side bristling with quality in every position.
As Fergie declared after United’s 2-0 demolition of Schalke in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final in Germany “every player was excellent” and the side is “peaking just at the right time”
This was a vintage display by United and whether Read Madrid or Barcelona are destined to be their Wembley opponents, there is no question that there is nothing to fear for a Manchester side hellbent on becoming the club’s fourth champions of Europe.
In the most one-sided Champions League semi-final you will ever see, how the Germans kept United at bay until the 67th minute was a miracle largely down to the incredible performance of goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. But once Rooney unlocked Schalke’s resistence with a delicious Zidane-like set-up that allowed Ryan Giggs to open the scoring and become the oldest player ever to score in this competition, it was only a question of how big the final margin.
Rooney made his mark with the second served up by his outstanding strike partner Javier Hernandez and the Germans – who remember demolished champions Inter Milan 7-3 on aggregate in the previous round – were dead and buried. It was a sign of United’s total domination that Giggs confirmed the team’s disappointment that the margin of victory was not far greater than 2-0. It is never over until the fat lady sings of course, but if United were to fail to complete the job next week at Old Trafford this would be a turnaround to top any in the latter stages of this elite competition.
For most United fans the big question now is how to get a ticket for the final and what could be Fergie’s crowning glory.
For Sir Alex to triumph at Wembley – scene of United’s historic and emotional first European Cup triumph in 1968, a decade after the tragedy of the Munich air crash – would be yet another incredible high for the 69-year-old Glaswegian. And if he can deliver the Champions League after collecting a record 19th title as champions of England that would be priceless.
The only ray of frustration is that Fergie has been denied the chance to repeat his Treble success of 1999. And the reality is that United would surely still be on for a triple crown if Rooney had not been banned from playing in the FA Cup semi-final defeat by neighbours City.
There is still a lot of hard work to do. And United could still finish the season empty handed. But there is a feeling in the air that this is going to be a special season to rank alongside any in the history of the club.