Fighting on two or more fronts is hard, bloody hard, but if you’re Manchester United you have to get used to it. The Reds have been doing it for years and this season is no different – or easier. No sooner had Chicharito clinched the three points from Everton which may prove pivotal in returning the Premier League title to Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson has to take his side to Gelsengirchen for the first leg Champions League semi final tie against Scalke 04.
Given Schalke’s results and performances in the competition so far, it is surprising that so many close to United seem to have one eye on which of Barcelona or Real Madrid they would like to play in the final. The German side’s remarkable 5-2 victory in the San Siro against Inter in the last eight broke with their habit of building on workmanlike away performances with home victories.
If Alex Ferguson’s side can get an away goal in Gelsenkirchen then their form at Old Trafford should see them through. If Schalke can maintain their 100 per cent home record in this season’s competition then United could be in for a surprise.
Manager Ralf Ragnick replaced Felix Magath between the last 16 and the quarter-finals but Schalke’s tactics remain largely unchanged. Raul and the Brazilian Edu form a potent strike force but it is the strength of Schalke’s midfield which has been the key to their success. The rising Greek star, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, was deployed in midfield against Inter and performed heroics in neutralising the threat of Wesley Sneijder. It would be no surprise if Rangnick attempted to repeat the trick to deal with Wayne Rooney.
With Dimitar Berbatov seemingly persona non grata when the really big games come along, Ferguson will again rely on Rooney and Javier Hernandez to score the goals United need. Like Schalke however, it is United’s strength in midfield and defence which has been key to their progress. Ji-sung Park has been immense, while Michael Carrick’s improvement in recent weeks has compensated for the continued absence of Darren Fletcher. Behind them, the form of Rio Ferdinand since returning from injury has been a big boost for Ferguson.
Having secured a 1-1 draw in the Mestalla, Schalke fell a goal behind in the second leg of their last 16 tie against Valencia. Lesser teams might have crumbled but two goals in a 12-minute period either side of half-time from Jefferson Farfan and Champions League debutant Mario Gavranovic swung the tie back in the German side’s favour and they haven’t looked back since.
Having thrown away a lead in the league fixture at Stamford Bridge four weeks previously, United travelled to Chelsea for the quarter final needing some sort of result to bring back to Old Trafford. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs combined to set up Wayne Rooney’s first half goal but the Spanish referee Alberto Mallenco’s decision not to award a penalty for Patrice Evra’s challenge on Ramires in the dying minutes was equally important.
There are other candidates for Schalke of course, as much as any team left in the competition embody the collective over the individual, Raul’s performances throughout the tournament have been astonishing. A fitting finale to the season the 33 year old has had would be for him to score the winner in the final against Real next month.
While many of the big names left in the tournament are struggling after a long season, Wayne Rooney seems to be feeling the benefits of being a passenger for much of the campaign. Rooney provides a constant goal threat as well as the ability to create chances for others and Schalke will hope to force him to go deeper and deeper in search of possession.
Will Schalke prove to be a step too far for United just as so many German sides have proved to be over the years? Somehow I doubt it.
If United can only win one trophy, which one will you prefer?