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English giants Manchester United make the trip to Germany to face the surprise package Schalke 04 at the Veltins-Arena in the semi finals of the Champions League on Tuesday.
For most, this tie is a one-sided affair which pales in comparison to the other semi final fixture - the El Classico. However, taking into consideration the fluent rate at which the sport pops up shocks and surprises, this tie could prove to be the more entertaining of the two fixtures. Why?
Firstly, Manchester United are favourites. They have more to lose here than the German side whose poor domestic form could see them give their all against their English opponents, which, in turn, could make a great piece of entertainment for the neutral.
Secondly, those considering United as favourites will have an inkling of doubt in their minds. Schalke progressed through to the semis after crushing the holders Inter Milan with an aggregate score of 7-3. Detractors will argue that Inter had lost much of their superiority after Jose Mourinho left them as coach. However, take into consideration that Inter advanced to the quarterfinals after overcoming a first leg deficit to another German side Bayern Munich who are currently six places above Schalke. To have crushed a side boasting Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto'o, Maicon, and Julio Cesar in the manner that they did would be something even Manchester United would be proud of!
The reasoning provided above is somewhat along the lines of what Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick will say to his side before the game. In the pre-match press conference, he also spoke up of his side's chances.
Sir Alex Ferguson has more experience and has won many more trophies,'' Rangnick said. Manchester United do have a very experienced team, on average three to four years older than ours. But maybe the fact we are more inexperienced means we are a really hungry team with more passion.
It is something that makes this match all the more alluring for our team. Our players are in this position for the first time, with the exception of Raul, who might be there for the last time. We have to show what we can achieve and get the best out of it, so hopefully, this will be a benefit for us.''
Rangnick has said all the right things, but he will know that getting past Manchester United is easier said than done. United are currently in the middle of their customary late season surge. They already seem to have the league title in the bag and will be fully focused on the Champions League. That Sir Alex rested Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Ryan Giggs at the weekend's 1-0 win over Everton shows that he isn't buying the argument that United are favourites.
The red Manchester side progressed to the semis after seeing off fellow-English rivals Chelsea with an aggregate of 3-1. All his players seem to peaking at the right moment with both Wayne Rooney and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez heading that list. The twosome has created such a deadly partnership up front that it relegated the club's top scorer Dimitar Berbatov to the bench - a fact that shows the strength of the squad.
In the pre-match conference, boss Sir Alex stated his desire to cement his club's name in the top echleons of the European competition. Though United have triumphed in Europe on three previous occasions, nine-time winners Real Madrid, seven-time winners AC Milan and five-time champions Liverpool lead the way.
Ferguson said, The present group has enough experience in Europe now. I think it's where we should be. My expectation has always been high in regard to the European scene. You do get envious of other clubs' records in Europe and we're trying to get to parity with those clubs: Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Liverpool. We need to progress quickly to get to that level again.
Fergie spoke of experience and it is that factor which will be crucial against Schalke who have never reached this stage of Europe's elite tournament. They boast legendary striker Raul in their ranks, who triumphed in Europe on three occasions with Real Madrid and is the top scorer of the competition with 71 goals in 140 games. He has already scored five times in the tournament this season, and Ferguson will entrust Vidic with the job of nullifying him. Raul's experience is what Schalke will be counting on, but they will need far more than that if they are to get past United.
Team News -
Other than Dimitar Berbatov (groin strain) and the long-standing absentee Darren Fletcher (virus), Manchester United have no other injury worries.
Schalke have been bosted by the return to fitness of center back Benedikt Howedes but will be without Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Peer Kluge and Christoph Moritz. However, Rangnick rested Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Jose Jurado, Joel Matip, Alexander Baumjohann and Jefferson Farfan in the weekend and they will all be fresh for this tie.
United will not take many risks tonight against a spirited Schalke. A 1-1 draw will suit them just fine and they will take the away goal to Old Trafford where they will step on the gas.