Schalke have an uphill task with their second-leg visit to Old Trafford on Wednesday evening, having lost the opening tie to a vibrant Manchester United side 0-2 in Gelsenkirchen. Rangnick has the tough task of motivating his players after a demoralizing week in which his side were also humiliated at the hands of Bayern Munich, losing 4-1. He does have the returning Howedes and Huntelaar however to bolster his options in defence and attack respectively. United meanwhile will be looking of a repeat performance from eight days ago, a performance which goes down as one of the most satisfying European away victories under Sir Alex’s reign.
Fergie has promised changes ahead of Sunday’s crucial clash with Chelsea with Berbatov, Owen, Fletcher and Scholes all having been promised minutes on the pitch. Given that the squad is largely free from injury, wide-ranging changes could be on the cards, as the manager is rightly wary of collective ‘burn-out’ which often occurs at this stage of the season. With this in mind, there is a likelihood of up to six or seven changes from the Arsenal lineup, with perhaps a further eight or nine for the following game on Sunday.
O’Shea should come in for the recently excellent Fabio at right back, and Smalling and Evans will be vying for starts in order to rest either one or both of Ferdinand and Vidic. There is even a suggestion that Kuszczak or Lindegaard could come in for van der Sar in order to rest the Dutchman for the vital few games ahead. In midfield, Fergie is likely to select a traditional bank of four – with Giggs, Carrick, Park and Valencia surely certain starters versus Chelsea, this could be the opportunity to give vital game time to Scholes and Fletcher, and indeed Anderson who desperately needs time on the pitch in order to regain his match fitness.
Fletcher started on the right side of midfield against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the league this season, and if fit to start could perhaps be called upon to do a similar job in nullifying the threat of chief playmaker, Jurado in the Schalke midfield. Valencia will also feature in Fergie’s thoughts given the little time he spent on the pith at the Emirates, and given the success he had against Sarpei last week in Germany. Nani, Berbatov and Owen should complete the lineup, with the latter two having been sidelined recently due to a combination of injury and the form of Hernandez and Rooney in the latter stages of the season.
As per Rooney’s instruction in the first leg, Berbatov will likely drop in behind Owen and seek to create the play in the final third. He isn’t likely to have as much space as Rooney did however, as Man United were afforded so much time on the ball, and Carrick, Giggs and Rooney in particular revelled in the space. At home Man United’s fullbacks will be tempted to join the attack at every opportunity, but Ferguson will warn against complacency as his side are within touching distance of a third Final in four years; it is vital that both are not caught high up the pitch at the same time, with Farfan and Uchida on the right in particular ever dangerous on the counter.
Probable starting line-ups
As Tim Hill volunteered last week, Rangnick is certainly a tactical ‘chameleon’ and one thing is for certain going into tomorrow’s clash, and that is that Schalke will not approach the game in similar vein. A change to the 4-4-1-1 system is on the cards given that United had far too much time on the ball in midfield and clinically outplayed the German side from start to finish.
With Howedes returning from injury he is likely to start alongside Metzelder given how unorganized the back line were in the first leg in his absence. This would mean Matip dropping into a central midfield holding role alongside Papadopoulos, with Kluge perhaps coming in to the right of centre. It was notable in the first leg how lax the pressing was in the centre of the field, with the young Greek international often finding it difficult to cover for Jurado’s forward runs, and looking vulnerable to the United attacks coming through the centre once the team had been relieved of possession. Rangnick will want to guard against this with a three-man middle and narrow wingers when defending. Raul then is unlikely to have a partner in the form of Edu or Huntelaar, but the United back-line will have to be ever vigilant to the supreme movement the veteran Spaniard continues to show, dropping deep and linking the midfield and wide approaches.
United are in the envious position of resting over half of the team due to play Chelsea at the weekend, which would be unthinkable to the vast majority of teams in Europe. But Ferguson has confidence in his squad and often considers his rotation in the finest detail, knowing that his team’s philosophy and mental toughness will come to fore on such occasions. Given that United should have success with keeping the ball high and wide against Schalke’s fullbacks, it is essential that the forward players are astute in their movement, hitting the box at the right time, and offering timely support out wide during patient attacking approach-play. United will seek to score an early goal to settle the nerves, but must remain fully concentrated and vigilant, as the likes of Raul, Farfan, Jurado and Uchida can cause untold damage when allowed to.
Referee: Pedro Proenca (Por). A Champions League debutant, and thus a remarkable achievement having been handed a return leg semi-final. A great prospect for the future.
Prediction: 3-1 to United, Berbatov, Scholes and Nani on the scoresheet.
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