Sir Alex Ferguson will make wholesale changes to the Manchester United team that faces Schalke on Wednesday night, with one eye firmly on Sunday’s Premier League showdown with Chelsea. The 69-year-old Scot will include Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen and Paul Scholes in the side to face the German champions, safe in the knowledge that Schalke must score three without reply at Old Trafford to progress.
Such is United’s confidence in Europe this season – no defeats and eight victories from 11 matches – that the Scot can be forgiven for applying greater importance to the Reds’ weekend Premier League fixture. After all, Schalke’s performance in last week’s first leg was so underwhelming that few credit the former Bundesliga champions with much hope of progressing.
However, the Scot insists there is no complacency in the United camp for the tie, which could see the Reds reach a third Champions League final in the past four years. With Barcelona already in the Wembley showpiece, United must avoid a 3-0 defeat to ensure a repeat of the 2009 final.
But with United under pressure at home, Ferguson will gamble with United’s European progress against a team that scored five at Internazionale in the quarter-final.
“We feel we have a lot of work to do tomorrow,” Ferguson told the press on Tuesday.
“I think it is very easy to get complacent in modern life, there are many examples of it. But I hope nobody at Manchester United regards it as a formality tomorrow, I certainly will not be. I think the work ethic will need to be very high tomorrow, very high, in order for us to qualify.
“We know that Schalke have nothing to lose. That is the message he [Schalke’s Ralf Rangnick] will give to his team. I think they will have a go and try to win the match – there is nothing else they can do. Any coach in a semi-final must give his team that chance to try to win the match and I think we’ll find that he will have a real go.
“If you look at the experience of last year when we lost the league, the team were very tired against Chelsea after playing Bayern Munich on the Wednesday. That will have a bearing on my team selection. We’ve got two massive games, both as important as the other. There will be some changes. Hopefully the nucleus of the team is still good enough to win.”
Ferguson will rest key attacking players including Wayne Rooney, who has a tight hamstring in any case, Javier Hernández, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia. Meanwhile Anderson, so ineffectual against Arsenal, could drop to the bench following Saturday’s defeat, with Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson pushing for a place in United’s starting 11. Fletcher is likely to start on the bench after missing two months with a virus.
However, the Scot is likely to retain Rio Ferdinand, Edwin van der Sar and captain Nemanja Vidic in an experienced back four as United chase only the club’s fourth European Cup final win. Fabio da Silva misses out due to injury, with John O’Shea or brother Rafael coming into the side. Indeed, Ferguson says that the prize is too great for Saturday’s defeat to affect his players ahead of Schalke’s visit.
“We always have work to do in the next match. That is the great beauty of football at least. You always have the next game in which to do something and we’ve only had to wait three days. That is an important issue for us because it is a part of being a good team, how you can recover from a defeat.
“The interesting thing about last weekend was that the four [Champions League semi-final] teams all lost. So European games do take it out of you. I have to pick the right team tomorrow in order to have the same kind of freshness I need for Sunday’s match.”
Meanwhile, Schalke arrives in Manchester with no pressure having frozen at the Veltins Arena last week. Despite slipping to mid-table during a fraut Bundesliga campaign, coach Rangnick has instilled an attacking mentality in the Die Königsblauen that was rarely evident against United last Tuesday. Rangnick has promised a better display at Old Trafford; it could hardly be worse.
The coach welcomes back key defender Benedikt Hoewedes, while Dutch striker Jan-Klass Huntelaar could make the bench.
“Tomorrow we will show we can play better than we did last week and that we have learnt our lessons,” Rangnick told a news conference on Tuesday.
“In football you can get the chance so we will see what happens. When we played in Milan against Inter people didn’t give us much hope either.
“I think we have to be well organised in the first 10 minutes and then we have to take our chances when they’re presented, even if there are just two minutes left. You think of Manchester United and the Champions League win [in 1999] when they came back to win 2-1.
“If Sir Alex Ferguson does spare players it shows he has belief in his squad. And if we have a chance it is up to us to perform in contrast to the first-leg. We need to take a different approach, learn from that and apply the lessons tomorrow.”
Victory for the German visitors is certainly not beyond Rangnick’s men, although an open match will allow United to strike on the counter. In Raúl Gonzales Schalke retains a potent attacking threat despite the Spaniard’s poor showing in the first leg. The 33-year-old striker scored four goals in three games against United for Real Madrid, appearing in both legs of Madrid’s quarter-final win in March 2000. Raúl hit another brace when Madrid beat United 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu in a quarter-final tie three years later.
It might take a similar effort to knock a much changed United side out.
Champions League semi-final, second leg. Old Trafford, Manchester, 7.45pm
United – 451 – van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Gibson, Scholes, Park; Owen, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuszazck, Brown, Evans, Smalling, Rafael da Silva, Anderson, Carrick, Valencia, Hernandez, Giggs.
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
Referee: Pedro Proença (POR)
Assistant referees: Tiago Trigo, Ricardo Santos
Additional assistant referees: João Capela, João Ferreira
Fourth official: Duarte Gomes
United – WWLDWL
Schalke – WWDLLL