It is impressive for any side to storm into the Champions League final with a 4-1 victory. However, it is particularly so when the vast majority of the side’s first XI have been rested for the weekend, as was the case with Manchester United last night. The likes of John O’Shea, Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson started for United but the scoreline more than makes a point about both their performances and United’s double-chasing squad.
Playing alongside Evans was the ever more exciting Chris Smalling, who arrived at Old Trafford in July 2010 for a reported £8million from Fulham. Eyebrows were raised at the price paid for such a young, unproven player whose crucial own goal against Chelsea last year gave them a lift in the title race. But Smalling has proven to be a great prospect this season, putting in some fine, accomplished performances. It is obviously difficult for anyone to dislodge the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic but Smalling has proven himself to be an able deputy.
At the heart of United’s midfield on Wednesday night was the maligned Darron Gibson. When Antonio Valencia opened the scoring, Gibson assisted with a pass worthy of Barcelona’s Xavi or Iniesta. The Irishman added a goal of his own soon after, aided by mistake from Schalke’s goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. The Irish midfielder had recently deleted his newly-opened Twitter account after receiving abuse from United fans, deriding him for his shooting and perceived lack of quality. But Gibson went some way to silencing those critics last night, and with Michael Carrick also coming in for criticism recently, performances like last night’s will make Gibson’s case for more regular starts. But for now, Sir Alex Ferguson will be delighted he can call upon Gibson when needed.
Against Schalke, Dimitar Berbatov was given his first start since his less than impressive performance against Manchester City a few weeks ago, having fallen behind Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez in the pecking order. Yet he too rose to the occasion and worked hard, fashioning chances for his teammates with crosses from the wings – unlike the Berbatov that splits opinion in the Premier League. The fact that the Bulgarian, a £30million striker who is top scorer in the Premier League, is now second choice at United shows just how strong their squad is. This is despite criticism this term that United might become one of the worst squads to win the Premier League. The performance of the XI fielded last night shows just how debatable that view is.
It must also be noted that the Old Trafford club’s strength in depth is superior to Barcelona’s, who they meet at Wembley on May 28. Barcelona’s bench against Real Madrid comprised mainly of youngsters yet to make their mark in the first team. Compared to United’s multi-million pound bench of proven quality, Barcelona may feel concerned if the final reaches the stage of looking to substitutes for rescue.