A second-string Manchester United cruised into a dream Champions League final against Barcelona on Wednesday with a 4-1 victory over German side Schalke 04.
Leading 2-0 after the first leg, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson could afford to make nine changes to his starting line-up and still see his team qualify for the May 28 final at Wembley with something to spare.
The unlikely hero was United’s much-maligned Irish international Darron Gibson, who set up Antonio Valencia with a magnificent pass for the first goal on 26 minutes before hammering in the second on 31 minutes.
Jose Manuel Jurado pulled a goal back for Schalke, but there was only ever going to be one outcome and two second-half goals from Anderson completed a crushing 6-1 aggregate victory for the English giants.
The result put United into their third Champions League final in four years, and gives Ferguson’s side the chance to avenge their loss to Barcelona in the 2009 final in Rome.
Delighted United keeper Edwin van der Sar said United would relish the opportunity to have another crack at Barcelona.
“We have to make sure we learned our lessons and that we’re better prepared this time than we were last time,” van der Sar told ITV.
The Wembley final will be 40-year-old van der Sar’s last in a United jersey before he retires.
“To play at Wembley, it’s going to be a great game and hopefully a better outcome than the last time, otherwise it’s going to be a terrible feeling,” he added.
The win also handed Ferguson the perfect fillip ahead of this weekend’s Premier League battle with Chelsea, a high-stakes encounter that may well settle the outcome of the title race.
A slow start saw Schalke have the first half-chance of the night after only seven minutes, Jefferson Farfan sending a low shot fizzing just wide of the upright after seven minutes.
However, once United settled into their rhythm, the writing was on the wall as Schalke’s defense found themselves struggling to cope with the movement and speed of the home team’s wide players, Valencia and Nani.
United might have had a goal on 21 minutes, but Dimitar Berbatov’s low cross was easily cut out by Benedikt Howedes with Chris Smalling lurking unmarked.
Yet United did not have to wait long for their opener, Gibson threading an exquisite ball through to release Valcencia, who calmly finished past Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer midway through the half.
It got better for Gibson five minutes later when his thunderous low shot from the edge of the area beat Neuer, who should have done better, and flew in off the post to make it 2-0 and effectively kill the tie.
It was a personal triumph for Gibson, who last week closed his account on micro-blogging site Twitter after only two hours after being subjected to a torrent of disparaging abuse from United fans.
Schalke were given a glimmer of hope on 35 minutes when Smalling conceded possession cheaply and the ball ended up at the feet of Jurado, who lashed a fierce shot beyond van der Sar.
Even then, United might have stretched their lead by half-time, Valencia ghosting past his marker and Neuer only for his goal-bound shot to be cleared off the line by Howedes.
A fractious finish to the half saw United concede three yellow cards in quick succession, Gibson, Scholes and Anderson all picking up cautions for rash challenges.