Why United should be wary of Schalke
Sir Alex Ferguson could have asked for little more in the past week. Manchester United has a healthy six-point lead atop the table in the English Premier League with matches against lowly Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers still to come. And it has avoided both Barcelona and Real Madrid in the semifinals of the Champions League, leaving those two behemoths to do battle on the other side of the draw. Yet while the United manager will remain confident, experience tells him loud and clear that the Red Devils' final-four opponent, Schalke, is hardly a walkover en route to the final at Wembley on May 28.
Regarded by the majority of observers as a shoo-in to reach the final, United has been here before. The last time it met a German side in the semis was in 2002 against Bayer Leverkusen, and Klaus Toppmoller's side progressed on away goals. Intriguingly, that year's Champions League final was held in Ferguson's home city of Glasgow, as Leverkusen took on Real Madrid at Hampden Park. The German side eventually lost to Zinedine Zidane's sumptuous left-foot volley.
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While Leverkusen and Schalke are often grouped together domestically for their unrivaled capacities to turn to jelly when in sight of silverware, the two clubs are actually of very different stock. Leverkusen, winner of two major trophies in its history, plays in the 30,000-capacity Bay Arena, while Schalke is the sixth-best-supported club in Europe with an average attendance of more than 60,000, and was the giant of German football before Bayern Munich's hegemony.
In playing terms, Leverkusen 2002 and this modern-day Schalke also are very different beasts. United's current top scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, led the line for Toppmoller's side, essentially a counterattacking team, with the Bulgarian's neat link-up play allowing the likes of Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto to rush on from midfield. In this season's Champions League, Schalke is all about attacking. It has played the bulk of the season with Champions League record scorer Raul and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar leading it 4-4-2 (although Raul and Edu will start against United), flanked by two wide men, usually Jefferson Farfan and Jose Jurado. It is an approach that many judges considered too open for domestic games, but it has worked well in Europe.
Schalke has scored 21 times in this season's competition -- including 11 in four matches in the knockout stage. New coach Ralf Rangnick's general positive impact since taking over March 17 -- as well as presiding over the thrilling elimination of Champions League holders Internazionale -- has led to shameless revisionism of the unpopular Felix Magath's tenure at the Veltins-Arena.
Yet despite Magath losing the locker room and the faith of most supporters, it cannot be ignored that it was under his tenure that Schalke played its liberated, free style in the competition before the quarterfinals, beating Valencia, Lyon and Portuguese champion Benfica along the way. This fearless approach could pose problems for United's back line, although it also offers the opportunity to catch Schalke with the type of swift counterattacks at which the likes of Nani, Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Ryan Giggs excel.
Schalke's Christoph Metzelder-led back line tends to have difficulty dealing with genuine pace. At least Rangnick has a formidable last line of defense to count on, although not for much longer. Manuel Neuer tearfully announced in a news conference last week that he would not extend his contract, which expires in 2012. The German World Cup goalkeeper is now widely expected to join Bayern Munich when the season ends, even though he has been touted as a replacement for United's retiring Edwin van der Sar for much of the past year. Neuer, 25, will aim to go out on a high, and he has always sparkled in the Champions League.
In Schalke's last appearance in Europe's premier competition, back in 2008, Neuer delivered Mirko Slomka's Schalke side to a quarterfinal against Barcelona, producing the performance of a lifetime in the last-16 match at Porto. He pulled off a string of phenomenal saves during the match and went on to stop two penalties in the deciding shootout.
That said, Neuer's one recurring weakness tends to be defending against long-range shots on goal -- see the fluke goal by Eintracht Frankfurt's Giorgos Tzavellas at the Veltins-Arena in March or the lofted Frank Lampard shot for England in Bloemfontein in June, when an errant linesman spared Neuer's blushes. Ferguson's men have shooting power in abundance, via Rooney, Nani and even Darron Gibson. So this dynamic will bear watching.
But Neuer & Co. will have the advantage of playing at home, in Gelsenkirchen, on Tuesday in the first leg. It's been a fortress for Schalke in the Champions League, as the German side has won all five matches played at the Veltins this season. Can the Red Devils avoid defeat there? They'll be the favorites to win, of course, but the match is hardly a foregone conclusion.
Andy Brassell is a freelance soccer writer for ESPN.com.