The gallant Germans face the elegant Englishmen in the first leg of the 2011 UEFA Champions League semifinal. The first leg at the Veltins Arena has all the prospects of being an absolute thriller, with the stadium being a fortress for Schalke, at least in the Champions League where they have won all their home games. Facing Inter in the quarterfinals, Ralf Rangnick’s side absolutely humbled the defending champions over both legs of the tie and ended up winning 7-3 on aggregate, a score line that left many pundits awestruck. United on the other hand, outplayed Chelsea in their quarterfinal fixture, winning both the legs (0-1 at Stamford Bridge and 2-1 at Old Trafford). The meeting will be the first between the two teams and Schalke would gain strength from the fact that United have never won a two-legged knockout tie against German opposition. They have lost on all four attempts, most recently against Bayern Munich last season in the quarter-finals.
FC Schalke 04:
(L, D, W, W, W)
Schalke’s season has been “weird” to say the least. A poor run in Bundesliga, which led to the sacking of Felix Magath in the middle of season, sees them in the 10th spot of the league table. However, their poor Bundesliga form has been compensated with their “dream run” in Europe. The signing of Real legend Raul in the summer is paying dividends as the all time leading Champions League goal scorer has been Schalke’s standout player with 18 goals in all competitions. The player himself is enjoying his first stint outside Spain which was quite evident from the way he celebrated with the fans following the win against Inter. Raul has been a pivot in this Schalke side around whom the likes of young and energetic Farfan, Edu, Jose Jurado and Annan rotate. The other buy, Huntelaar has had his fair share of injuries in his first season at the German club and is certain to be out of the match with a knee injury. Ex-Real Madrid player Metzelder provides the much needed stability to Schalke’s back four. Supported by Howedes, the duo are more than capable of containing United’s strikers. However, with pace on his side, Chicharito can prove to be a nuisance for the duo. Sarpei and Uchida have been the regular wing backs this season for Schalke. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has made his intentions to leave in the summer clear and would like to sign off with a positive note. Schalke rested their key players in the weekend fixture at FC Kaiserslautern that ended in a 1-0 defeat. They are set to play Bayern Munich this Saturday, but with Champions League being their only chance of winning silverware this season, Rangnick is expected to go out with a full strength XI. “Attack” has been Rangnick’s way of playing throughout his managerial career and he has no reason to go on the back foot against United for this match.
(W, D, L, W, W)
On course for emulating the famous treble winning 1999 season, United’s hopes were dented following a 1-0 defeat at the hands of bitter rivals Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinal. However, the Reds are still on for a Double and the current Premier League leaders would fancy their chances against the “underdogs”. And with a near full strength squad available at disposal, this fixture is United’s to lose. Dimitar Berbatov, Darren Fletcher, Owen Hargreaves and Bebe didn’t travel to Germany with the squad. Berbatov has a groin injury while Fletcher is still recovering from flu.
Making their fourth semifinal appearance in five years, the Red Devils have been an epitome of consistency at the highest level of football. United’s last Champions League campaign ended abysmally against Bayern Munich when Rafael da Silva was sent off and Rooney was in the starting Xi despite being injured. However, Sir Alex has players aplenty to choose from this time. At the back, Vidic and Rio have been rock solid. Young Chris Smalling has proved time and again that he is more than capable of filling Rio’s boots in his absence. Jonny Evans started alongside Rio against Everton and managed to keep a clean sheet. With all 4 central defenders fit and Vidic being a certainty to start, there is a stiff competition for the other spot. Rafael has overcome his hamstring injury and is expected to start. Evra, who came on for the final 30 minutes of Everton game, is certain to start this one. In midfield, Valencia couldn’t have chosen a better time to return from his injury. Ever since his comeback, the Ecuadorian has looked the same old self, making blistering runs on the wings while troubling the defenders with a trick or two. Ji Sung Park, dubbed as a big game player by Sir Alex, might get a nod ahead of Nani. Giggs and Carrick, the duo who combined together beautifully for United’s away goal against Chelsea, might partner against Schalke. Wayne Rooney has reveled in his role of a “second-striker”, playing just behind Chicharito. The formation allows Rooney to come deep into his own half to collect the ball. All in all, Sir Ferguson will not take Schalke lightly and will be desperate to establish a first leg lead.
Schalke: Neuer, Uchida, Howedes, Metzelder, Sarpei, Farfan, Matip, Papadopoulos, Jurado, Edu, Raul
Manchester United: Van der Sar, Rafael, Vidic, Smalling, Evra, Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Rooney, Hernandez
“For everyone at Schalke this is an absolutely great game. The fact that we have an inexperienced team and a lot of these players are in this situation for the first time – apart from Raul, who might be in this situation for the last time – we have to show what we can achieve with enthusiasm and passion.”
“It will be a tight result and we just hope that we’re still in a position to reach the final when we play the second leg in Manchester. I am convinced it will be tight up to the end.”
“Schalke never looked like losing against Inter. That’s quite a credit to them when you consider the experienced side they were up against. They were in control and made a good impression on me when I was here.”
“Germans have self-determination. It’s reflected in how the German people approach all sports.”
“Wayne’s form has been fantastic the last two months. The more important thing is the freshness that has come into the team with players coming back. Anderson, Rio, [Antonio] Valencia and [Ji-sung] Park.”