Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson basked in the 2-0 UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg win over Schalke on Wednesday and admitted that his team now face a crucial seven days.
United tackle Arsenal on Sunday and fellow Premier League title rivals Chelsea the weekend after with the return European leg against Schalke sandwiched in between. "I hope we get a positive result on Sunday against Arsenal and then from there, depending on that result, I may well make three changes for next week's second leg as we've got Chelsea the weekend after," said Ferguson. "It's a crucial seven days coming up for the club. I think we've come to our peak."
United are on the verge of a record 19th English league title, standing six points ahead of Chelsea and nine in front of Arsenal with just four matches left. And after Tuesday's impressive win, they are virtually assured of a place in the 28 May final of the Champions League where either Barcelona or Real Madrid will be their opponents.
Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, a reported United target, kept the three-time champions at bay almost single-handedly on Tuesday before quick-fire second-half goals from Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney brought United victory. The result puts Ferguson's side firmly in the driving seat ahead of next week's return leg at Old Trafford, when they will seek to book their place in the Champions League final for the third time in four seasons.
"It was a very professional performance tonight," added Ferguson. "The concentration, intensity and passing were all top class. They have all done fantastically well."
Neuer admitted that United were just too good. "We had too much respect for our opponents," said Neuer. "We weren't compact enough, we weren't aggressive in the tackles. We can be proud of what we have done. We will try and keep the adventure going to the end."
Ferguson was impressed by Neuer, who seems set to move to Bayern Munich in the summer. "Manuel Neuer was incredible, it was perhaps the best performance I have seen by a keeper against us in my career."
Rooney, sent off on his last appearance at this venue in the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, believes United could have scored more goals after dominating from the early stages. "We're delighted but a bit disappointed in terms of not scoring more," he said. "We have done very well. We have to be professional for the second leg as Schalke can't be taken lightly. They went to Inter and won 5-2 (in the first leg of their quarter-final)."
Giggs was always confident of victory. "I thought if we kept creating chances then they would go in," said the Welshman who, at 37, became the oldest player to score a Champions League goal. "We could have been four or five up at half-time. Before the match we would have taken 2-0 but it's quite disappointing in terms of the final result now."
Schalke defender Christoph Metzelder admitted his side were outplayed. "We have to recognise that we were dominated by a team playing in a different dimension," he said. "We still have hope, anything is possible. We'll try and do everything to win at Old Trafford."
Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick refused to give up the ghost saying his side would not throw in the towel in the second leg at Old Trafford. "Why give up? Of course we won't do that," he said.
"The situation at the moment is that United have a better chance, but things happen in football and you never know. Perhaps they feel too secure and we can spring a surprise. We now have a Bundesliga game against Bayern Munich and then we play United. Of course we're going to attack them. But yes, we need to improve some points."
Rangnick said the ferocious will to win that had been so evident against Inter had not deserted his side. "I wouldn't say there was a problem with our fighting spirit," he said. "I think it was more of a tactical problem. We didn't really fit in the right position. You can't assume you can play the same against Inter every game. You need to have the right tactical nous in each position to play a game like this."