Rooney Schalke

"Saw my mate the other day..."

With a crucial win over Everton at the weekend keeping Manchester United’s title charge on track, it was time to look to what would be a critical periods in deciding the possibilities surrounding their eventual fate.

The next four games – reading Schalke away, Arsenal away, Schalke at home, Chelsea at home – will have been pinpointed as make or break dates in the calendar for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. With the German side having surprised many with their progress in this season’s European showcase, particularly given their mediocre domestic efforts, United fans will have been wary about the threat posed. After all, there are no “easy matches” when it comes to the Champion’s League, and the swift demolition of Internazionale will have certainly meant this team were not to be taken lightly.

However, when it came down to business, Schalke could not match up to United. In what many would describe as “comfortable”, Ferguson’s men cruised through the first leg, taking a 2-0 victory back to Old Trafford, to put them within reach of making a trip to Wembley for the final. And so, here are five things that may be taken away from the game.

1) Manuel Neuer showcased why Ferguson has been linked with him

After the match Sir Alex Ferguson paid a glowing tribute to the German shot stopper, claiming it was one of the best performances he had seen against his team. Without Neuer’s imposing presence between the post, United might well have put more past Schalke, with the big keeper proving tough to beat throughout the match, making at least 8 crucial saves to deny them an opening goal or to prevent them adding to it later on.

Neuer’s commanding presence as well as his ability to stay up and make himself look big in front of United’s forwards made one-on-one situations incredibly difficult, giving him the edge and appearing to have the presence of a wall in front of his goal. Combined with his consistent play and some superb reactions saves, getting down quickly to the ball made for a night where the likes of Rooney, Hernandez and Giggs may well have wondered where a goal might come from. Perhaps, psychologically, Hernandez’s disallowed goal was the breakthrough they needed. Although it did not count, it proved he was beatable, and may have lifted the spirit of the forward line to keep persevering until an opening was found with an exquisite through ball from Rooney to Giggs to slot home coolly in the 67th minute.

2) Michael Carrick – Midfield Executive

For all the criticism that Carrick has come in for this season, of late he has given fans reasons to justify his presence within the United squad. Despite the outward appearance that many see as an anonymous figure in some games with little effect, the statistics suggest he has a vital role to play within United’s midfield.

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Referring to an article on this site, entitled "The Taken for Granted Brilliance of Michael Carrick", we find he has the greatest pass success rate of any of the starting line up, at 86.9%. Indeed, he has come in for criticism from myself regarding his effect, but one must admit the statistics do not lie, and his role of sitting in front of the back-four worked wonders on Tuesday night, as he took a commanding role in supplying the ball from midfield, able to set up play, with Rooney taking a central role in front of him allowing for greater creativity in the middle, and for Carrick to revel in his place as United's "engine room".

With a far stronger midfield, United were able to take control of the game, at a pace that their German counterparts simply could not keep up with. The strength of Carrick's part in this is emphasised when we see such numbers as the fact that in the first half he made 56 passes at a 91% success rate, higher than anyone else.

3) Are Fabio and Rafael competing for the same position?

With Rafael Da Silva having been injured in recent weeks, it is understandable that having just recovered that he would not be rushed back in to action, especially when one considers the importance of the matches due to be played. This season we have seen Rafael stake his claim in the side with a string of impressive performances, displaying an attacking pedigree that makes him a real threat in the right back position, and combined with a strong attitude made for an interesting future prospect.

However, with his injury and the lack of a true right back, it has fallen upon his brother Fabio, normally a left back to take up the role. With Patrice Evra having cemented his place on the left side of defense, the opportunities afforded to Fabio have not been as regular as those for Rafael, given the availability of the right back position. But with Fabio having been given a chance to impress on the right, we have witnessed the reasons why both brothers were signed up.

Having given a very positive performance against Everton the previous Saturday, the travelling United support were treated to another highly promising outing for the Brazilian youngster, showing yet more attacking promise, getting involved in plenty of build up play, and finding himself with a couple of opportunities to make his mark on the game with his sharp runs and burst of pace. Like his brother, a natural maturity will need time to develop, such as when making tackles, but overall one must admit he has shown plenty of promise that cannot be ignored.

Continued on page two.