Schalke 04 currently sit 10th in the Bundesliga. If you follow high-level professional football in Europe, you're probably well aware of that fact. In the build-up to the UEFA Champions League semi-final tie between Schalke and Manchester United, much has been made of Die Königsblauen's league position.
Despite the fact that they have performed poorly enough in the league that their manager, Felix Magath, was fired (though the board claimed it was for not consulting them on signing a youth player, puh-lease), Schalke have been fantastic so far in this competition. They advanced out of a group with Olympique Lyonnais and Benfica in first place, and defeated both Valencia and Inter Milan en route to the semi-finals.
By the standards of most people, all four of the above-listed teams are more talented than Schalke. Even with Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Raul up front and Jefferson Farfan on the right, the rest of the team has some deficiencies. The fact that they were able to defeat both Valencia and Inter Milan after selling Ivan Rakitic to Sevilla is astonishing. Jermaine Jones has been replaced with the cup tied Anthony Annan, so a carousel of teenagers has occupied the defensive midfield role. The defense is average, at best. Still, they keep on winning in Europe.
A lot of that is down to Manuel Neuer, who has refused to sign a new contract at Schalke. Various reports already have the goalkeeper headed to Bayern Munich in the offseason, and that would surprise precisely no one. Despite the fact that Schalke have advanced to the semi-finals of the most prestigious club competition in the world, Neuer is still a big fish in a small pond. It's unlikely that Schalke will do anything this great for a second time anytime soon. Meanwhile, Neuer is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. While the likes of Bayern Munich and Arsenal lack a great No. 1, Neuer's time at a club the size of Schalke was always going to be limited.
The task they have in front of them on Tuesday is a very difficult one, but based on what we've seen from them so far, not an impossible one. It's fair to say that Manchester United are on a different level than the other great teams Schalke have faced so far - even Inter Milan - but the German side can't be dismissed as merely a speed bump on the way to glory for United.
Meanwhile, Manchester United are in the process of winning a Premier League title that has been practically gifted to them. They could magically lose their six point cushion at the top if they lose to both Arsenal and Chelsea while dropping points in one of their other games, but that seems incredibly unlikely. Though they may win the title on just barely over 80 points, United have actually been the model of consistency in this year's Premier League. This year's United team seems like the weakest in five or six years, and yet, they have a very good chance at a double.
Schalke will likely line up in a 4-4-2, and Alex Ferguson will likely counter with the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 hybrid he has been running, in which Wayne Rooney drops very deep into the midfield. Ferguson likes to play the industrious, defensively strong Park Ji-Sung in the Champions League, and even if this wasn't a regular occurrence, the presence of Farfan on the right would make Ferguson strongly consider playing Park on the left anyway.
Dimitar Berbatov is out for United, while both Huntelaar and Peer Kluge are questionable for Schalke. Based on his comments about taking Schalke seriously and his team's setup against Marseille and Chelsea in the previous two rounds of the competition, Ferguson is likely to take a "better safe than sorry" approach in Gelsenkirchen. It wouldn't be surprising to see Park and Antonio Valencia on the wings, with Nani rested. It would be fairly surprising to see either Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs start in the middle. United should set up a team that is, above all else, difficult to break down.
The first leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final between Manchester United and Schalke 04 takes place at 8:45 pm local time, which is 7:45 pm GMT and 2:45 pm ET, from the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. It can be seen on television on Fox Soccer Channel in the United States.