Sir Alex Ferguson can depend on Fábio, Nani is not always necessary and Michael Owen may as well pack his bags now
There was only one reason why the score was kept respectable and his name was Manuel Neuer. There were periods in this match when the Germany international looked like someone could toss a handful of pebbles in the air and he would pluck every single one from the sky. What a pity it is for United that he seems a near-certainty to join Bayern Munich at the end of the season because, whoever Sir Alex Ferguson signs to replace Edwin van der Sar this summer, this was an evening that left the unmistakable sense that Neuer – by all accounts, the first choice of United's goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele – should be regarded as the best man for the job. It is rare for a team to have so many chances in a Champions League tie and the night would have been even more of an ordeal for Schalke if their goalkeeper had not produced what could legitimately be considered one of the outstanding individual performances of this season's competition.
Here was the biggest game of his life and the 20-year-old played with a calm that made you think back to 1999 and Ferguson's description of Paul Scholes, in the quarter-final against Internazionale in Milan, going "into that cauldron as calmly as someone popping round the corner for a newspaper." Fábio was quick to the ball, eager to break forward and, all in all, he demonstrated why, when he signed for the club, United's coaching staff rated him as marginally more accomplished than his twin Rafael. Whether he can keep his place remains to be seen (he was playing here because John O'Shea was injured and Rafael not fully fit) but, on this evidence, United's supporters need not feel too concerned by the presence of such an inexperienced player on the right of defence. United's defence have not conceded an away goal in Europe for 384 days since Bayern Munich's Ivica Olic scored against them in the quarter-finals last season and Fábio played a considerable part. It felt like the night he truly arrived as a Manchester United footballer.
There is every chance Nani, with nine Premier League goals and 18 assists, will collect the Sir Matt Busby player-of-the-year award for United next month, but his form over the previous eight months was still not enough to merit a place here – and it was difficult afterwards to quibble with Ferguson's thinking. Antonio Valencia's return has been so seamless it is easy sometimes to forget the mangled state of his leg when he broke it in two places last September. On the left, Park Ji-sung was an elusive opponent, chasing back, running with the ball, finding space. United's width was a significant reason for their dominance and, if everything goes smoothly at Old Trafford in the second leg, that leaves Nani with the serious possibility of being excluded from the final, too. Nani has been United's star performer for large swathes of the season but his form has dipped since Valencia came back into the reckoning – perhaps not coincidentally.
You wonder what Michael Owen was thinking, watching the match in his suit, seeing all those chances going begging throughout the opening hour. Even with the injured Dimitar Berbatov back in Manchester recovering, it spoke volumes that Ferguson did not feel Owen merited a place on the bench. There were three defenders among United's substitutes and not one striker and Owen must be growing wearily accustomed to these kind of snubs by now. He is out of contract at the end of the season and it would be almost a shock now if he were to be offered a new deal to stay at Old Trafford.
Or can they? It was perplexing to think this was the same side that had put seven past the 2010 champions, Internazionale, over the two legs of their quarter-final. United were the superior team in every department. Let's not overlook the fact Schalke scored five times when they went to San Siro – but that is starting to feel like it was a one-off. At Old Trafford, under the floodlights, the second leg is surely now a mere formality.