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When Manchester United were drawn against Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, the smart money was on whoever emerged knocking the stuffing out of one of Schalke and Inter Milan in the semifinals and heading to Wembley for the final. It's not surprising, then, to see United emerge from their trip to Germany with a seemingly insurmountable lead, but what perhaps is a little weird is the consummate ease with which they dispatched their opponents.
If not for a combination of poor finishing and brilliant goalkeeping by Manuel Neuer, United could easily have won four or five nil in the Veltins Arena - and that's in the away leg of a Champions League semifinal! Instead, they had to settle for two, scored in quick succession by Ryan Giggs (who had been denied several times in the first and early parts of the second half) and Wayne Rooney. The hosts, meanwhile, never looked like they were going to come anywhere near scoring, and after their goals United were able to simply play a little bit of keep-ball, knowing that in all probability the tie was over and they could start planning for Arsenal and Chelsea in the league.
Yes, Schalke did beat defending champions Inter Milan 5-2 at the San Siro, but giving them any hope of repeating that is silly - Inter Milan are a shadow of themselves this year, and United are a much stronger side. On the back of this performance today, there is absolutely no way the Champions League final won't have Manchester United in it.
More substitutions! Manchester United withdraw goalscorer Wayne Rooney for Nani, which just seems a little bit unfair, while Schalke deploy Julian Draxler in the place of Jose Manuel Jurado. If you're unfamiliar with Draxler, he's a 17-year-old midfield prodigy and the second-youngest player ever to start in a Bundesliga game, so at least that's interesting. Also interesting: Patrice Evra nearly just scored after a beautiful chipped pass from Nani, who is playing in the middle for some reason, the left back running onto the ball and flashing a shot inches wide of the far post.
Schalke, incidentally, have managed to test Edwin van der Sar with a thumping effort by substitute Sergio Escudero from range forcing the Dutch goalkeeper into a good stop down and to his left. But that's too little, too late, and doesn't look anything like being a theme. United have been dominant and are thoroughly deserving of their lead, and if not for Manuel Neuer could be up by an absolutely absurd score. It's been a pretty disappointing performance by Schalke today, who were at least supposed to be able to test United's defence. Wembley awaits.
2-0 away from home means that Manchester United have the tie more or less wrapped up, so the only thing that will worry them would be if Schalke somehow fluke a goal between now and the end of the match, and even 2-1 would be a great result as far as Sir Alex Ferguson's side are concerned. So, they're playing a little bit of keep-ball, frustrating the hosts, who look like a beaten team.
If Schalke want to get back into this semifinal, they're going to have to do it very fast, because it doesn't look as though it's going to happen unless they get a miracle in the final few minutes of the game. Then again, they did beat Inter Milan 5-2 at the San Siro, after which a 2-0 home loss would ahve been fine, but expecting lightning to strike twice in the same place might seem a touch foolish. You'd be crazy to bet against Manchester United making the Champions League final now.
After the goal, I asked whether Manchester United would push for more goals to kill off the tie or simply sit back and relax, to which the answer was pretty obvious - they were going to keep going full-speed. And it's paid off with another goal, this time via the boot of Wayne Rooney, who scored with an almost carbon-copy of Gigg's finish after being set free by Javier Hernandez. Although Manuel Neuer had been keeping the visitors at bay almost singlehandedly for most of the match, he couldn't do anything about those two goals.
So, there are changes in the air with the game (and possibly tie) sewn up. With Sir Alex Ferguson looking towards the weekend's clash against Arsenal at the Emirates, Paul Scholes and Anderson have been introduced for Park Ji-Sung and Javier Hernandez respectively. Schalke have also made a substitution: On comes Sergio, off is Hans Sharpei, who had just picked up a booking for a foul on Antonio Valencia. It's been a rough few minutes for the hosts.
Well you can't say that wasn't coming. Ryan Giggs has made it 1-0 to Manchester United after a lovely through ball from Wayne Rooney left him one on one with Manuel Neuer, and the Welshman's first-time shot went straight through the goalkeeper's legs to open the scoring at long last. So, they've finally scored after wasting at least a dozen legitimate chances - are United going to press for more or sit back and relax a little bit?
The sad thing for Schalke is that the goal came after their first spell of sustained pressure so far in the match, although it was all corners and long-range shots. A corner won by drawing Patrice Evra out of position ends up ricocheting back to Raul Gonzalez out wide on the left, and his teasing cross would have left Edu with a free header at the far post if not for a timely interceptionby Rio Ferdinand, and Edwin van der Sar was more than happy to save from a long-range snapshot with Raul following up.
That's a clear yellow card for Fabio da Silva, who goes to ground and trips Jose Jurado as the Schalke player was attempting to surge up the wing. He doesn't complain about being shown a yellow card, to his credit, and Nemanja Vidic is more than happy to clear the ball when it's swung into the penalty box, starting a quick Manchester United break which is eventually thwarted by the offside flag, infuriating Wayne Rooney who rather correctly points out that he was not offside and thus a better passing outlet than Antonio Valencia, who was.
Schalke aren't really able to hit their guests on the counterattack and they're not about to really do much in terms of clever possession play, so it's all a little bit hit and hope from the home side at the minute. However, it's still 0-0 and Schalke have more of the ball than they did in the first half, so that's progress, I suppose.
Meanwhile, Manuel Neuer has touched the ball without being praised by Greame Souness, which is very strange. He was too busy talking about how Schalke have finally realised Manchester United are a good team and that they can't possibly hope to compare against a real English side.
Manchester United have finally beaten Manuel Neuer in the Schalke goal! Amazing. Unfortunately for Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, he is adjudged to be offside before controlling a deflected shot and smashing past Neuer after the whistle had gone. It was a neat finish by Chicharito, and they'll be pleased to have finally got a ball past Neuer, but he was indeed offside and so justice has been done in disallowing the goal.
At the other end of the pitch, Jose Manuel Jurado volleys well wide after a ball broke loose in Edwin van der Sar's area - that was a real chance and a warning for the United defence, who were more or less asleep there. That faint hope hasn't really counted for anything as far as Ralf Rangnick is concern, and the Schalke manager has made a move, yanking off Alexander Baumjohann for Peer Kluge. Greame Souness informs us that it can't possibly be a tactical substitution as it's the 52nd minute, which, well, okay then.
We're up and running in the second half and Schalke, true to form, immediately go on the attack. If this is anything like the last half that will be their only major venture forward for the rest of the game, but if it is their only attack it's a rather good one, Jefferson Farfan swinging in a delicious cross that causes chaos in the Manchester United box before it's finally hacked clear.
Up the pitch we go, with Manchester United replying with a neat header on a cross saved by Manuel Neuer (surprise), and the corner is half cleared only for the Schalke break to be picked apart by Michael Carrick. Eventually, the ball works its way back into the Ranger zone, where Ryan Giggs picks it up, jukes away two defenders to give himself acres of space in which to shoot form ten yards out, and then shifts the ball onto his right foot and misses by approximately 25 miles. That was... odd.
Sooooo Manchester United just aren't going to score if Manuel Neuer has anything to say about it. The Schalke goalkeeper has been phenomenal so far, and just before half time he managed an almost effortless looking save after Ryan Giggs broke clean through the defence, staying up until very late and letting the United midfielder fire straight at him and out of play.
An earlier scare was averted after Kyriakos Papadopoulos nodded a teasing cross away for a corner, but one has to wonder just how long the hosts can hold out like this. That's quite literally dozens of chances missed by United (as opposed to maybe one from Schalke), yet the game remains 0-0 at halftime. There was a spell where it looked like both teams would be just fine on the attack, but after about the fifteenth minute it's been all Manchester United, and they haven't managed to break the deadlock yet. Absolutely remarkable scenes so far, although I can't imagine it will last very long.
Comedy of errors at the back from Schalke allowing Manchester United to slip in yet again. That said, Schalke have Manuel Neuer and that's pretty helpful for most defences, and the goalkeeper has once again bailed out his teammates. Antonio Valencia beat his man on the right wing twice before passing to Wayne Rooney, but the ball is intercepted - only for the ball to be presented immediately to Chicharito Hernandez in the penalty area! The striker burst free, and shot only for his effort to be magnificently parried off the line by Neuer. Park Ji-Sung's shot, in turn, was blocked by Atsuto Uchida, and eventually the ball fell to Ryan Giggs on the volley, which went well wide. Very close though, and United really should be ahead right now.
Schalke, however, are complaining about a decision at the other end of the pitch. For the first time in several millenia, they get the ball into Edwin van der Sar's area after good work from Raul and Edu, only for Alexander Baumjohann to go down under a challenge from Rio Ferdinand. The referee, quite rightly, waves away the appeals.
Remember when this match was properly end to end rather than 'a parade of Manchester United chances'? Me neither. Javier Hernandez comes close yet again, bursting into the area and beating Manuel Neuer from an acute angle only to see his vicious shot flash agonisingly wide of the far post, and then Ryan Giggs was denied by a sublime save from the German goalkeeper, planting a firm header from a rebound only to be denied by Neuer's right hand. Very close calls, as far as Schalke are concerned.
For the past ten minutes or so, the hosts have been firmly on the back foot, and they're going to have to work much harder in the midfield to rectify that. Presumably that was the idea behind the temporary switch in formation, but that didn't work either - Park Ji-Sung and Wayne Rooney are both drifting into the middle of the pitch to support Giggs and Michael Carrick, and it's extremely difficult for Schalke's two (or three) central midfielders to compete.
Slowly, Manchester United begin to turn the screw. They're increasingly able to hold possession in the Schalke half, which is allowing Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney to apply some serious pressure to the home side's defence. Chicharito came close to scoring (again) when he managed to wriggle past Christoph Metzelder and soot into the side netting, and seconds later he tried to turn provider by squaring the ball to an onrushing Wayne Rooney, who was eventually crowded out in the six yard box. He'd probably have been better off shooting there.
Meanwhile, Schalke are pulling out all of the stops to try to stop their more illustrious guests from carving them apart, including making tactical changes - they had a five minute affair with a 4-3-3 in the midst of all of this, with Jefferson Farfan moseying around as a left forward before reverting to the right midfielder in their regular 4-4-1-1. Obviously the 4-3-3 didn't do them much good.
Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez has just wasted a huge chance to put Manchester United ahead against Schalke 04, and he really, really should have found the net. Park Ji-Sung slipped him through the Schalke line (left back Hans Sharpei was playing him onside), but Chicaharito couldn't beat Manuel Neuer and the goalkeeper eventually fell on the ball while the rest of the Schalke defence were protesting the decision. One has to wonder whether Chicharito realised he was actually onside - the finish he attempted was woeful. Nonetheless, that was a gilt-edged opportunity to give United the lead.
Schalke, for their part, are looking extremely dangerous on the attack but vulnerable to a pacy counterattack. Their fullbacks are pushing up to allow Jefferson Farfan and Alexander Baumjohann to rove around, but that does leave their back line exposed and it would come as no surprise if Chicharito thoroughly abused their centre backs' lack of pace. The Germans are playing a pretty dangerous game here, although if they score they won't mind too much.
So far so good as far as 'open games' are concerned. Ten minutes in and we've already seen at least five saves, with Manuel Neuer having much harder work than Edwin van der Sar so far. Manchester United looked like they had a real chance when the German goalkeeper couldn't hold onto a stinging effort from Park Ji-Sung from the edge of the box, and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez was first to the rebound, but the Mexican striker was flagged for offside. He didn't know that when he tried to latch onto the ball, though, and it took a superb intervention from Neuer to deny him - not that it would have counted anyway.
Jefferson Farfan's first major contribution to the game was to shoot wide after good work on the Schalke right eventually made its way to the winger in the penalty area, and now he's won a corner, the hosts' first of the evening. Is anything going to come from it? Well, yes, but not for Schalke - United broke up the pitch and very nearly managed to slip in Wayne Rooney six yards out and unmarked but for a vital challenge by Joel Matip. Very close there.
We're underway at the Veltins Arena, Manchester United kicking off and giving the ball to the hosts almost straight away. A series of poor decisions in the midfield leads to Schalke getting a shot away within thirty seconds, although Alexander Baumjohann's long ranger is struck straight at goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and posed the veteran goalkeeper no problems - he'd have done much better slipping in Jefferson Farfan there, who was in acres of space on the right.
We shouldn't expect United to be under pressure like that for the whole match, of course, and Wayne Rooney has already replied with a shot of his own, forcing Manuel Neuer to tip clear with a curling effort from the corner of the penalty box. The resultant corner comes to nothing, as does the subsequent Schalke attack. It's been a pleasingly back-and-forth opening to the match, and we'll have to see whether both sides can keep it up today.
No tactical surprises from Schalke 04, although Ralf Rangnick has had to make an adjustment to his defence after losing centre back Benedikt Höwedes to injury, slotting in Joel Matip in his place. The hosts are lining up in a pretty standard shape, with Edu leading the line and Raul Gonzalez roaming behind him while Jefferson Farfan provides a major threat down the right wing (where he'll be countered by the efforts of Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung).
The back line will be interesting - and worrying, if you're a Schalke fan. Their defence isn't top-class even at the best of times, and losing Howedes doesn't help much, although Matip is at least a fairly competent replacement. With Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney on the attack, don't be surprised to see Manuel Neuer get a lot of work in the Schalke goal.
Substitutes: Mattias Schober, Sergio Escudero, Nicolas Plestan, Peer Kluge, Angelos Charisteas, Ali Karimi, Julian Draxler.
Manchester United take on Schalke 04 in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semifinal clash as favourites to advance to the final at Wembley, and Sir Alex Ferguson has opted to keep more or less the same team that did away with Chelsea by fielding a 4-4-1-1 led by Javier Hernandez with Wayne Rooney in a roving role between the lines. Portuguese midfielder Nani is missing, replaced by the more defensively-minded Park Ji-Sung, while Antonio Valencia will maraud down the right with Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick manning the centre. There aren't many surprises in defence, although Fabio da Silva starts in the place of twin brother Rafael at right back.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Edwin van der Sar; Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Fabio da Silva; Park Ji-Sung, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia; Wayne Rooney; Javier Hernandez.
In January, Ivan Rakitic was sold from Schalke 04 to Sevilla in Spain's La Liga. His contract was up at the end of the year, and with Schalke struggling in the league and in a questionable financial state, Rakitic had no desire to sign a new one. The team was forced to take whatever they could get for the player, and just like that, their most creative midfielder was gone. Schalke have plenty of quality in other roles in the midfield, but they don't have another true playmaker like Rakitic.
Somehow, since the departure of their most creative player, Schalke have been fantastic in the UEFA Champions League. They have won three out of four games in the knockout stages, with the other match being a 1-1 draw against Valencia at the Mestalla. Despite the lack of a true creative presence in midfield, Schalke managed to score five goals at the San Siro against Inter Milan.
To imply that Schalke might be better off, either tactically or in quality without Rakitic would be disingenuous. He's been more or less replaced by Jose Manuel Jurado. Though he is a decent player, Jurado is nowhere near the quality of Rakitic, as evidenced by the fact that Atletico Madrid couldn't wait to give him away. If you don't know, Atletico Madrid's midfield is embarrassing. The fact that Jurado wasn't good enough to get a spot in that midfield is jaw dropping.
Since moving to Sevilla, Rakitic has already scored six goals, including a spectacular free kick this weekend against Villarreal. Still, despite his departure, his old team have somehow improved without his presence. It's completely inexplicable. There's no good reason why Schalke should actually be a better team without him.
Though, somehow, the results are better. Results based analysis in football, especially when the sample size is as small as four games, is extremely misleading. However, isn't the inexplicable underdog one of the reasons lots of people like sports? Isn't this why Bill Simmons invented the Ewing Theory and people ate it up? Isn't this why sports writers pen glowing columns about guys like David Eckstein and the members of the BBC line (how's that for an obscure reference?), scrappy guys with average skills who "lead" their teams to glory, while the likes of Alex Rodriguez sit at home?
I, for one, can't wait for the column someone's going to write about the heart, grit, and toughness of an inferior Schalke side if they pull off an upset against Manchester United. Unfortunately for Ivan Rakitic, he won't be along for the ride.
Jefferson Farfan is arguably Schalke 04's best player, and Alex Ferguson is likely to start Park Ji-Sung, as he always does in the UEFA Champions League, to counter him. To even casual followers of the Champions League, this might sound like a bit of a "no duh" sentence. Farfan has been brilliant in Europe all year, and Park is a fixture in Manchester United's Champions League ties. However, as SB Nation's Manchester United blog The Busby Babe points out, there's a lot more to the battle on the flanks than just Park vs. Farfan.
Over at TBB, Gene discusses Schalke's fullbacks, among other things in the build-up to the Champions League semi-final tie between the two teams, and gets into exactly what's going to happen between all of the wide players, both the wingers and fullbacks, for Schalke and Manchester United.
Schalke's full-backs love to get forward and provide support in attack. The goal is, especially against teams that play in a narrow shape, to fly forward in support of a winger and overrun the opposition with 2 v 1 situations on the flanks. Schalke's wide attacking players tend to drift inward and this often provides space for overlapping runs by their supporting full-backs. Luckily for United, they have two wingers who are exceptional at combatting this potential problem. Park is terrific as a "defensive attacker" and he will need to effectively track back and contain Uchida's forward runs on his side. Valencia can nullify an attacking full-back by simply pinning them back. If Nani, who isn't as consistent at tracking back to defend as Park or Valencia are, plays out wide for United, then Nani and his counterpart will both likely have space to run onto. In that scenario, it's whoever proves to be a bigger threat that will win that battle.
The battle on both sides should be interesting, but in particular, the Farfan and Uchida vs. Park and Evra battle could be fantastic, if the team selections cause that battle to happen. However, this is Alex Ferguson, after all, and the best way to predict the lineup he's going to play is to blindfold yourself and throw darts towards pictures of the players on United's roster.
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.
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