Manchester United may never have beaten German opponents over two legs in European competition but there will surely be no better opportunity as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side faces Schalke 04 for a place in this season’s Champions League final. Ferguson’s side starts as overwhelming favourites, despite the historical quirk, which has seen defeats to Bayern Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich during the Scot’s reign. But with Ralf Ranglick’s German champions in fine form, United’s hopes lie in securing a favourable result in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday night.
Victory over two legs will take United to a third Champions League final in four years but Ferguson is acutely aware that United’s record in Europe’s premier competition does not rank alongside those of the club’s competitors. Indeed, three victories and one further final suffers poor comparison with continental rivals.
“The expectation has always been high with regard to the European scene and you do get envious of other clubs’ great record in Europe,” admitted Ferguson.
“We are trying to gain parity with that. You look at Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Ajax and Liverpool. We really need to progress quickly to get to that level and the present group have enough experience in Europe now.”
But Ferguson admits that nerves will play a part despite his squad’s vast European experience. Cataclysmic semi-final losses to Dortmund and Leverkusen attest to the risks posed at this stage of the competition, although the Scot will allow no complacency to creep into the United side, despite the favourite’s tag now placed on the Reds.
“You always get apprehensive at this stage of the competition, “adds the 69-year-old Scot.
“Semi-finals are never easy. We had the same situation in 1999 when we played out semi-final against Juventus. There was an apprehension in our first game at home that we released in the second leg. When we played Barcelona in the first leg (in 2008) we got the result we wanted. But the last 20 minutes of the second leg were absolute agony.
“There is no way Manchester United will be led into believing this is going to be easy. Schalke have beaten every team at home in the Champions League this season, including Valencia and Inter Milan. If you take that in isolation, it is good form.”
Newly-installed Schalke coach Ranglick has quickly built on the club’s open, attacking, style in this season’s competition. It offers a challenge to United’s imperious recent record away from home in European. Unbeaten outside Old Trafford since last season’s defeat at Bayern – victors in 12 of the past 14 on the road – United faces a team that has already scored 21 times in Europe this season, including seven against champions Internazionle in the quarter-final. By contrast the Reds have hit the net on just a dozen occasions in Europe this season, although Ferguson’s side boasts the best defensive record of any in this season’s competition, without a goal conceded away from Old Trafford.
United’s recent record mirrors both a marked change in the team’s style over the years and Ferguson’s recognition more than a decade ago that his side could no longer risk being outnumbered in midfield. With Dimitar Berbatov missing due to injury, Ferguson must decide whether to include Saturday’s goalscorer Javier Hernández, or retain United’s typical European formation, with Wayne Rooney spearheading the attack as a lone forward. That Schalke has failed to keep a clean sheet in any of four knock-out ties in this year’s competition is pertinent, although it is unlikely to prompt a change in Ferguson’s normal circumspect approach to these ties.
Elsewhere Ferguson boasts an almost fully fit squad, with Rio Ferdinand resting a sore calf against Everton on Saturday and Jonny Evans likely to step down at the intimidating Veltins Arena. Darren Fletcher is again absent while the Scot recovers from a virus and Owen Hargreaves is neither fit, nor eligible for the tie. Ferguson is likely to choose between Nani and Antonio Valencia for a berth on the right-flank.
However, Park Ji-Sung will almost certainly start, with the South Korean regularly making Ferguson’s European selections. The 30-year-old midfielder is charged with neutralising Jefferson Farfan, Schalke’s pacey Peruvian winger, while ensuring an extra body in midfield when United is forced on the defensive.
“He’s got the discipline, intelligence and football knowledge you need in the biggest games,” said Ferguson of Park.
“Discipline is so much more important in the Champions League, and you need a slightly different type of discipline in Europe. Last season, for instance, one of the things that cost us was Rafael da Silva getting sent off in the return leg against Bayern Munich.There were other things but that was the killer for us. The boy was only 19 and he got carried away by the occasion. That can happen but there are some players you can normally rely on to keep a cool head and Park Ji-Sung is one of them.
“He’s a fantastic professional – he moves and play and moves again. That’s the asset he’s got. He doesn’t watch what other players are doing with the ball, he gets himself into another position so he can be involved again. That’s his value to us; he can be really important.”
Meanwhile, legendary forward Raúl González, veteran of nearly 150 Champions League matches and scorer of 71 goals in the competition, continues to defy age and a premature departure from Real Madrid. The Spaniard’s goal output remains impressive, with 18 in all competitions this season. The 35-year-old, who could have joined United last summer, forms a key part of the competition’s most potent attack and a pivotal influence on Schalke’s team.
“We do prefer to sign young players as a rule but when you get an opportunity to sign experience like that you’ve got to have a look at it,” admitted Ferguson.
“You can make exceptions for certain players because experience is so valuable. We thought the same when we signed Michael Owen, who has been a terrific professional for us, and bringing in Raul would have been similar to when we managed to get Henrik Larsson for a short time a few years ago.
“It was obvious his time at Real Madrid had come to an end, and he certainly wasn’t too old to be effective, as he has been showing in Germany. We spoke to his agent about a possible move but we already had Javier Hernandez by then, and, with Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen available we thought we could afford to let the chance pass. If we hadn’t had Michael at the club at the time I might well have signed him.”
Coach Ranglick has guided Schalke to an unbeaten start under his reign following Felix Magath’s brutal sacking after the group stages. Mid-table in the Bundesliga, Schalke has consistently under-performed in domestic competition in a largely disappointing campaign. If Europe remains the focus for Ranglick – a German cup final aside – then it is because the königsblauen have come alive in the competition over the past six months.
Despite the improved form is has been a chaotic season in Gelsenkirchen, with two coaches employed and star goalkeeper Manuel Neuer announcing his decision to leave the club via his Facebook page. The widely expected move to rivals Bayern Munich will net Schalke around £20 million but the announcement has cast a shadow over preparations for a first European Cup semi-final in the club’s 107-year history.
Despite the chaos, the tie promises to be a challenging encounter for United. While the assumption remains that Ferguson’s side will prevail over two legs, many made the same prediction before Leverkusen knocked the Reds out at the same stage in 2002. A decade on, complacency is a lesson learned the hard way and one that Ferguson is sure his side has taken on board.
Champions League semi-final, first leg. Veltins Arena, Gelsenkirchen, 7.45pm
Schalke – 4222 – Neuer; Uchida, Metzelder, Höwedes, Sarpei; Papadopoulos, Matip; Farfan, Jurado; Edu, Raúl. Subs from: Charisteas, Karimi, Sergio, Baumjohann, Schober, Avelar, Charisteas, Annan, , Hao, Schmitz, Schober, Pliatsikas, Vasilias, Plestan, Kluge, Avelar, Draxler
United – 451 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs, Park; Rooney. Subs from: Kuszazck, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Fabio da Silva, Rafael da Silva, Anderson, Gibson, Valencia, Hernandez, Owen.
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP)
Assistant referees: Roberto Alonso Fernández, Jesús Calvo Guadamuro
Additional assistant referees: Carlos Clos Gómez, Antonio Rubinos Pérez
Fourth official David Fernández Borbalán
Schalke – WWWWDL
United – WWWLDW