BackPageFootball’s Ger McCarthy looks ahead to Tuesday night’s Champions League Semi Final first leg between Schalke 04 and Manchester United and asks if the Bundesliga outfit can cause an upset or will United march on to a Wembley date with either Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Champions League Semi Final First Leg,
Arena AufSchalke, Gelsenkirchen,
Schalke 04 vs. Manchester United
Sir Alex Ferguson has spent much of the build up to Tuesday night’s Champions League clash with Ralf Rangnick’s Schalke 04 extolling the virtues of Manchester United’s European experience. Three times winners and serial semi final qualifiers, United head into the last four encounter in good health and on top of the Barclays’ Premier League table.
The return to fitness of Rio Ferdinand, Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia have come at a perfect time as Manchester United get set to negotiate a semi final with their Bundesliga opponents having lost all four previous knockout encounters with German opposition. The current form of crack striking duo Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez is another reason for fans to dream of a Wembley final at the end of May with the Mexican hit man heading the only goal of United’s most recent Premier League victory over Everton at Old Trafford.
Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to stick with his tried and trusted European 4-5-1 formation in Germany on Tuesday evening and look to keep a clean sheet first before hitting Schalke on the counter-attack in an effort to score a priceless away goal. Barring injury the back four should consist of Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic and O’Shea with Carrick and possibly Ryan Giggs forming the central midfield partnership. Park Ji-Sung and Valencia looks the most likely wingers to start the tie with their energy and ability to get back and support their full backs vital to United’s hopes of progression. The current form (as alluded to earlier) of Rooney and Hernandez pick themselves up front.
Schalke 04 enter Tuesday night’s showdown with absolutely nothing to lose and their fans hopeful of another huge European upset. The German side produced a stellar display in the San Siro to knock current holders (and previous conquerors of Bayern Munich) Inter Milan out of the competition in the Round of 16 with Raul and Edu starring up front. Since taking over from the sacked Felix Magath, Ralf Rangnick has instilled a confidence in a star-studded Schalke side struggling at the wrong end of the Bundesliga table. Now the Gelsenkirchen outfit find themselves in the last four of the Champions League, in the German Cup final and safely in mid-table in the league.
The Bundesliga side’s lack of Champions League experience appears to be one of the main reasons the bookies have Manchester United as favourites to progress. Yet the Royal Blues have a 100% perfect home record in Europe’s premier football competition this season thanks in no small part to the form of goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Rated as one of the best shot stoppers in the world Neuer is playing out his final season with Schalke 04 before joining Bayern Munich in a big money move this coming summer. Neuer has been at the cub since the tender age of 4 and will want to go out with a bang. On current form United’s strikers will have to produce something special to get past the German international.
Up front, Schalke’s Raul is enjoying an Indian summer since his transfer from Real Madrid. The legendary Spanish striker’s five goals in ten Champions League appearances have helped the Royal Blues reach the last four of the competition. Add to that the renewed form of South American striker Edu and the return to fitness of Jefferson Farafan and Schalke possess enough attacking weapons to trouble the United back four.
All signs point to Manchester United proving too strong over the two semi final legs due to their current domestic form and greater experience of such important European ties. The decision to drop Wayne Rooney back into more of a withdrawn striker’s role has reenergised the England international’s season whilst also freeing up Javier Hernandez to lead the attack and score 19 goals in all competitions. Irrespective of United’s attacking options the fact the Premier League club enter Tuesday’s first leg with the best defensive record in this year’s Champions League is testament to the form of evergreen goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar and club Captain Nemandja Vidic. Schalke are going to have to produce the performance of their season to get anything from the opening leg.
Yet the Bundesliga outfit enter Tuesday night’s showdown having recorded five straight Champions League victories, scoring 13 goals and conceding a paltry 2. Coach Ralf Rangnick’s comments about his side’s hunger and passion heading into the tie are well made: “Sir Alex Ferguson has won more games and titles at this level, but United will have a very experienced team, much as Inter did. Our team is a bit younger and hopefully hungrier to make up for their lack of experience. Our passion and discipline has helped us against Inter and I hope it will do so again against United”.
The AufSchalke Arena in Gelsenkirchen is a sell out and the home supporters are certain to get behind their side which should make for a cracking atmosphere. Schalke are going to need the help of their ‘12th man’ however as United will be travelling to Germany to attack which should make for an open encounter.
In contrast to Rangnick, Sir Alex Ferguson is looking to play up the experience of his current squad as they look to seal a Champions League final berth at Wembley: “The present group have enough experience now in Europe, it is where we should be. The expectation from my point of view has always been high as regards the European scene, because you do get envious of other clubs’ record in Europe and we are trying to come to parity with that – in other words, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Liverpool, and we need to progress quickly to get to that level again”.
Dimitar Berbatov and Darren Fletcher are the only two Manchester United players certain to miss out on Tuesday night’s tie. Other than that Sira Alex Ferguson has a full and healthy squad to choose from and likely to go with his usual 4-5-1 formation. Schalke are hoping ace defender Benedikt Höwedes recovers in time to make the Bundesliga side’s starting XI while Mario Gavranovic has also been absent in recent weeks and is unlikely to recover from an ankle knock.
Home advantage should spur Schalke 04 on to produce an energetic and positive display in front of their vociferous home support. United will be happy to emerge from Germany with a draw but an away goal would certainly tilt the balance of the tie in the English side’s favour.
With Rooney and Hernandez in devastating form Manchester United should emerge from this semi final first leg with a scoring draw and crucial away strike before winning the return leg at Old Trafford.
Prediction: Schalke 04 1 Manchester United 1