The Veltins-Arena (The Auf Schalke Arena for UEFA’s sponsorship purposes), Gelsenkirchen, host of the 2004 Champions League final, where Ronaldo winked, Rooney saw red, England crashed out and the re-birth of a siege mentality that Fergie used to take United to 3 league title and 1 European cup within the following 3 years.
Gelsenkirchen is only a small city, with a population of around 250,000, so staying in Dusseldorf, 40 minutes away was the best place for a hotel, although plenty of reds headed for Dortmund. Dusseldorf is about twice as big as Gelsenkirchen and had plenty of bars.
The hotel was nice. Best of all, one of the TV channels was showing non-stop reruns of the wins over Chelsea. They obviously knew we were coming and were prepared to entertain us.
We ended up spending the Monday night down by the river, place was full of bars and restaurants, not many reds though, the majority seeming to arrive on the Tuesday, and stay the night of the game. Germans love their kebabs as well, so finding something to soak up the alcohol was little problem.
It took until we got into Gelsenkirchen on the afternoon of the game before we saw masses of reds, but when we found them, they had clearly taken the town centre by storm. Just stepping off the tram at the main station you only had to follow the sound of ‘Ooh Aah, Cantona!’ to find where the reds were.
The ground is out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by some sort of forest, so shuttle buses and taxis ferried reds to the ground, with the trams reserved for home fans. The buses were buzzing and the atmosphere was building. United were one step from Wembley and we could almost smell it.
Security was tight once we got to the ground, tickets being checked often. I almost had my glasses taken off of me at one point, one steward made me take my flag out and checked it and its bag for ages before letting me past, but I did get past eventually, unlike one poor ticketless lad who was rugby tackled by a female police officer and carted off after he had jumped the barriers.
Once in the ground, you could tell the locals were up for it. They were all in their seats, singing, flag waving, building the atmosphere. With smoking and drinking allowed inside the ground home fans weren’t leaving it until last minute to go in. A pitch side announcer called out the starting XI’s first names, the crowd giving surnames en masse. This was the one the fans had been waiting for, they wanted United, this was their big night. Unfortunately for them, only one player, a player who appears destined for a summer exit, was prepared to stand up and be counted.
As the game got underway the home fans were getting behind their side, with 2,900 reds struggling to be heard in the corner of the ground, but as United started to open up the German defence the home crowd let their volume drop slightly.
Carrick sat deep in the midfield, with Giggsy’s 37 year old legs doing the running around him. Park started left, with Rooney off Hernandez, but often the 2 switched, and Rooney cut in from the left to cause Neuer an early scare with a curling shot, but the German number 1 was equal to it, and tipped it away after just two and a half minutes. Neuer took the resulting corner without any fuss, despite Hernandez providing him with a little red obstacle in the 6-yard box.
Park was the next to test the big German, his shot parried and Hernandez throwing himself at it, but the Mexican, as he is so often, was flagged offside.
United nearly struck again 8 minutes later, Evra’s poor ball cut out yet not cleared, Park then slid in the Mexican for a one-on-one with Neuer, but the German this time used his backside to hold the ball up before jumping on the loose ball.
It was Hernandez again on 20 minutes, the Germans again not clearing after a long ball from the Mexican, who pulled a left footed shot wide, this wasn’t quite the Hernandez United fans were used to seeing, but he was getting chances and surely he would have to take one.
Hernandez’s next chance came courtesy of Valencia, the winger sliding a ball into an acre of space between 2 Schalke defenders, but Chicharito was unable to get the ball under control, before firing wide from a tight angle, followed by a display of frustration from the kid, this wasn’t going to be his night.
United’s next chance was possibly the defining moment of the night for Manuel Neuer, as Giggs headed from close range, only for the German to pull a Schmiechel-esque stop from point-blank range to deny the Welshman. The noise rose in the United corner of the ground with each miss, the reds desperate for the team to find their way past the big shot-stopper, but it remained 0-0 at half time.
First chance of the second half fell to Evra, of all people, who flicked on a Giggs free kick at the front post, but Neuer had a comfortable save to make. It was then Giggs himself who missed the next chance, failing he connect properly with a right-footed shot after creating the space for himself in the box.
But on 66 minutes United won a throw 25 yards out. It made its way back to Rio who swept it back wide to Evra, into Rooney, who drew in 3 midfielders, including the player who was tracking the run of Giggs, dummied the pass then played a perfectly weighted through ball to the veteran midfielder, who then calmly slid it under the keeper to become the oldest scorer in Champions League history, and give United an away goal. Complete chaos in the away end, United had the lead in Germany and had one foot in the final. We would have settled for that.
But just a few moments later a long ball from Edwin caught the Germans flat-footed, Valencia squared to Hernandez, inside to Rooney, who was in behind the big Hannibal Lector lookalike at centre half, back of the net, 2-0, bedlam.
Rooney isn’t happy at United? He was then, he had erased any memory of 2006, of that sending off, he thanked Hernandez with a smile on his face, the two front men that are starting to become the new Cole-Yorke combination of the current generation.
With United 2-0 up, Fergie removed Park, Hernandez and then Rooney, clearly 3 players that will feature at the Emirates on Sunday, in a game that could all but wrap up the title should Tottenham and the world’s greatest player pull off a win at Chelsea, but I’m not getting my hopes up.
The United corner of the ground spent the remainder of the game singing of our date at Wembley, one foot in the final, not over yet but you have to be confident, and that’s what reds were, singing all the way down a maze of tunnels and back to our coaches.
Schalke fans in contrast trudged away, their players giving a lap of honour, almost looking resigned to exiting the competition next week.
Despite the horrors of Munich, Dortmund and Leverkusen you have to be confident that United will be returning to Wembley for their 5th European cup final, 43 years after ’68, after Busby and Charlton led us to the promised land, this time with Sir Alex and Giggs at the helm.
Rating: Van der Sar 6; Fabio 7, Rio 6, Vidic 6, Erva 7; Carrick 9, Giggs 9; Valencia 8, Rooney 9, Park 7; Hernandez 6. (Scholes 6, Anderson 6, Nani 7)
Written by Anthony Hassan. Follow him on Twitter.