Schalke go into the Champion League’s semi-final match up against Manchester United on a wave of new optimism. The Gelsenkirchen outfit have dislodged Bayern Munich as the side on the front of weekly sport magazines as they’ve surpassed even their own expectations in beating Valencia over two legs and then scoring a staggering five goals against the reigning champions of Europe, Inter, at the San-Siro.
Ralf Rangnick is somewhat of a tactical chameleon, willing to spring surprises and inconsistent teams and formations, making Schalke difficult to predict. For example, diminutive playmaker José Manuel Jurado, habitually a left-sided midfielder or a playmaker behind the strikers, played deep in a central role against Inter – a position unbeknown to him. The young Greek Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who was played as a central defender under Felix Magath, partnered Jurado and played as the holding player. One thing is for definite, however, the team playing Manchester United will be dictated by the physio room.
Without Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Christoph Moritz, Peer Kluge, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Christian Pander and more, Schalke are somewhat fortunate to have a large squad of players to choose from. One name not mentioned in that list, however, is Benedikt Howedes, who is the most recently injured in a long file. The twenty-three year old is indubitably Schalke’s most accomplished and complete defender and is a hammer blow for a defensive line that has to cater for the inconsistencies of Christoph Metzelder.
Metzelder is a definite point of weakness that Man United should and will exploit. His positioning is lacklustre which necessitates mobility to recover – he’s desperately immobile, however. Nevertheless, behind him he has one the most complete goalkeepers in Europe, Manuel Neuer. As Raul said to Sid Lowe, he’s “incredible… He might even be more complete than Casillas.” Raul is right, he is superb. It is a badly kept rumour that Neuer is heading to Bayern this summer after a Louis van Gaal induced debacle and it is hard not to feel that Manchester United have missed a trick here by not going strongly after the German #1.
Jefferson Farfan looks a revitalised man under Ralf Rangnick, putting in some stellar performances since the disciplinarian Felix Magath has departed for the comforts present in Wolfsburg. The winger has pace and agility and can also finish, he’ll be a handful to contain. His dribbling ability allows him to get behind defences where he can place crosses for Raul to finish. Farfan will play a significant role in whatever Schalke manage to do on the night.
Probable starting line-ups
United go into tomorrow’s match acutely aware of the downfalls of underestimating German opposition; back in 2002 United were favourites to progress to the final in Glasgow but failed to break down Leverkusen, profligate with their attacking play. Fergie will thus ensure that each and every one of the squad is mentally prepared for the tough task ahead of the trip to Schalke 04, and remind them of what is at stake at the same time: A potential Final showdown with either Real Madrid, or a stunning Barcelona side, which would only mean one thing to the manager – a chance of making amends for the tactical disaster in 2009.
Only Berbatov hasn’t travelled which means that United have a fully fit squad from which to choose, but as always Fergie will be factoring in the next 2-3 games which see United face Arsenal away, Schalke in the return leg and Chelsea at home in the league.
O’Shea has recovered from a knock versus Everton and so should retain his place at right back. Vidic and Evra return, joining Ferdinand, which would make up the back four ahead of van der Sar. Fergie will be keen to control the middle of the park and thus has a couple of crucial decisions to make with regards to the makeup of the midfield. Scholes started alongside Carrick at Stamford Bridge in the league, but Giggs came in alongside him for the first leg of the quarter final, providing energy and defensive acumen, which proved vital. The other decision to be made is in the wide areas; with Farfan a danger down the German right channel, Park may get the nod ahead of Nani on that side. However, Fergie will also be aware of the potential danger of Jurado who is in contention to start on the left side and may choose to select Park on that side; Valencia’s recent form should be enough to see him selected in the right birth though, whose defensive capabilities were also on show recently at Stamford Bridge.
Further ahead, Fergie will be contemplating starting with a similar tactic to that he has deployed of late in the bigger games, namely Rooney sitting very deep in an auxiliary central midfield role with licence to join the pacey Hernandez on the counter attack. There is still a thought that Fergie may well select both Nani and Valencia, with Park joining Carrick and Giggs in the centre and Rooney in the lone striker role that has suited the United approach in European away games in recent seasons. However, Fergie will be aware of Schalke’s weakness at centre half, and in particular the absence of Howedes – meaning that much onus will be placed on 30 year old German International, Christoph Metzelder, who despite a promising early career and a dream move to Real Madrid, has largely been erratic ever since. Rooney’s movement could be used to draw Metzelder into deep positions, allowing the likes of Hernandez, Giggs and Valencia the chance to exploit the space in behind. Having Nani in reserve will allow for his creative input to be utilised late on in the game if needed, and will also keep him fresh for the trip to the Emirates – a ground last season where many United fans decry that his rejuvenation and subsequent development into a true United player began, scoring and setting up Rooney with a sumptuous through ball in a typically devastating United counter.
Expect United to deploy a similar counter attacking tactic to that very game then, with Schalke likely to attack on home soil buoyed by their convincing win against reigning Champions Inter Milan – and ex Real Madrid man Raul hitting some fantastic form in the competition of late. The back line will have to stay fully concentrated and Carrick will need to watch Jurado’s clever movement inside, often needing the services of Park in order to nullify the attacking threat. Hitting Valencia early, and allowing Rooney to link the midfield and attacking lines will be important to capitalising when in possession.
Referee: Carlos Carballo (Spain). As ever at this stage in the Champions League, Carballo adopts an authoritative and no nonsense approach. Refereed the second leg of the second round United match versus Marseille.
Prediction: 1-1, Valencia to score a crucial away goal.
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