Schalke's hopes of a Champions League final spot took a serious blow as Manchester United recorded a 2-0 away victory in Gelsenkirchen. An outstanding display from goalkeeper Manuel Neuer prevented a far heavier defeat.
Neuer had a tough task keeping the scoreline so low
Manchester United outclassed Schalke in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in Gelsenkirchen, leaving the German side with a mountain to climb if they are to reach the final.
The German side could have lost by a far greater margin, had it not been for an outstanding performance by Schalke and Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
United veteran Giggs finally got the better of Neuer, but it took 67 minutes to do so
Neuer kept the English soccer giants at bay with a string of spectacular saves in the first half of the match, as United ran rampant against a creaking Schalke defense.
The keeper palmed away a curler from Rooney only three minutes into the game and dived right to keep out Park Ji-Sung's drive only two minutes later.
While Schalke's defense looked out of its depth, the midfield was unable to compete with United in terms of possession and creating attacking opportunities.
Further efforts from Ryan Giggs, most notably minutes before the break, only served to enhance the goalkeeper's reputation.
However, United piled on so much pressure in the game that it eventually proved impossible for even Neuer's heroics to save the side.
Schalke stunned twice
The United breakthough arrived after 67 minutes when a Rooney through-ball carved open the defense for Welsh veteran Ryan Giggs to roll the ball into goal between Neuer's legs.
It took just two minutes for the visitors to double their lead when Javier Hernandez put the ball in place for Rooney score with a shot into the bottom left.
It was not until the 81st minute that Schalke created anything approaching a reasonable chance, forcing a low-diving save from Manchester United's van der Sar with a long-range effort.
However, there was to be no consolation for a dismal Schalke display, and the side go into the away leg, to be played on May 4, trailing by two goals.
Praise for 'keeper
Disappointed Schalke coach Ralf Ragnick bemoaned the team's general performance but praised the exploits of his goalkeeper.
It all proved to be rather frustrating for Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick
"Our main problem was that we didn't get a grip on the game and Manchester United exploited that brilliantly."
"Manuel Neuer is the best goalkeeper in the world. We have seen that regularly in recent weeks and today he confirmed it. As far as the goals were concerned, our tactical play was bad. You cannot make mistakes like those at this level."
Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson also expressed admiration for the performance by Neuer, who is believed to be one of the Scotsman's transfer targets. "In my time at United, it's probably the finest display of goalkeeping against us," said Ferguson.
Football analyst Paul Chapman agreed that the scoreline could have been very different if it hadn't been for Neuer.
"He was tremendous. He made seven or eight brilliant saves, three of which were world class. In the first half it was Manuel Neuer against Manchester United."
'No excuse for terrible performance'
Chapman said that Schalke had simply failed to rise to the occasion. "It was important for Schalke to play to their potential but they put in a terrible performance," he said.
"They badly missed Benedikt Höwedes, who failed a fitness test yesterday. He was a massive loss because he inspires the rest of the defence. His replacement Joel Matip was found wanting but he could be forgiven because he's only 19 years old. There is no excuse for the more experienced defenders."
Attackers like Raul were forced to rely on scraps, as the Schalke midfield struggled
While Schalke's attacking players such as Raul and Edu had no chance because their midfield was overrun, said Chapman, the visitors had excelled themselves going forward.
"For Manchester United, every player shone. Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney ran the show and they must have been amazed by how much room they were given"
Time to switch priorities?
The winner of the tie plays either Barcelona or Real Madrid in the final on May 28 at London's Wembley Stadium.
However, Chapman believes that Schalke's chance of progressing are all but over and that their main priority now will be a German Cup final showdown with Duisburg, which could earn them a place in next season's Europa League.
"United are far too professional to let a lead like this slip now and Schalke don't have the players at their disposal to put out a much better side than they did tonight," said Chapman. "I don't think they are capable of breaking down the United defense."
"Schalke will be focusing their attention on the cup final, which is their only realistic route to European football next season."
Author: Richard Connor (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Sarah Harman