For the fourth time in the past five years, Manchester United will do battle in a UEFA Champions League semi-final tie; this time with German side Schalke 04. The Red Devils travel to Gelsenkirchen, Germany on Tuesday for a European night for the first match of their two-legged tie. When the two sides kick-off at Veltins Arena, it'll be the first ever meeting between the two clubs.
Manchester United: United currently top the table in the Barclays Premier League as they are six points clear of their nearest title-contending rival Chelsea FC. Since their victory over the same Chelsea side in the Champions League quarter-final, the Reds have been somewhat lackluster. In that span, United lost to rival Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final, drew on the road with Newcastle United, and narrowly defeated Everton FC at Old Trafford this past weekend. Despite being favorites over Schalke, United will need to show better form than they have recently if they are to advance to the final at Wembley on 28 May. It should be noted that United have never defeated a Bundesliga side over a two-legged Champions League knock-out stage tie. However, they do have a famous victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 final; a feat that enabled them to complete the treble.
Fortunately for United, injuries are not a significant concern at the moment. The bigger worry is likely fatigue as the club currently is faced with an important match every three to four days. Perhaps this explains United's recent uninspired performances. The one major injury concern that they do have is with Darren Fletcher. The Scotsman has been recovering from a virus that has caused him to miss nearly the past two months; his current battle is regaining fitness. Dimitar Berbatov is suffering from a mild groin strain, but the Bulgarian striker is likely to be available. Owen Hargreaves and Anders Lindegaard continue to be out due to long-term injuries.
* UPDATE * Berbatov has been ruled out for the match due to the groin strain.
Schalke: Despite sitting only 10th in the Bundesliga table, Schalke have been one of the stories of the German football season. In addition to their improbable, but impressive run to the Champions League semi-final, Schalke have also earned themselves a spot in the DFB-Pokal final, which is Germany's domestic cup competition. To earn passage to this semi-final tie, Schalke defeated reigning European champions Inter Milan in the quarter-final and Valencia in the first tie of the knock-out stages. This up-and-down nature to their season has resulted in negative theatrics as well. Former Schalke manager Felix Magath was sacked mid-season and his replacement, current manager Raif Rangnick, is in his second spell as the club's manager. Furthermore, highly-rated goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who's been linked to a summer move to Bayern, recently revealed on Facebook that he will not be signing a contract extension with his current club. Normalcy would be the last adjective to describe this German side's season.
The biggest injury concern for Schalke is striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who will miss the tie with a knee injury. Center-back Benedikt Howedes has a stomach-muscle problem and it's possible that the up-and-coming center-back misses the match on Tuesday night.
Projecting Lineups: Several players that are anticipated to be featured were rested in United's match with Everton this past weekend. Captain Nemanja Vidic should return to the lineup and he likely will be paired with Rio Ferdinand. Edwin van der Sar will be in goal and Patrice Evra will return to the starting lineup at left-back. Either John O'Shea or Rafael will likely be first-choice at right-back. Ryan Giggs, who is normally a winger, has been terrific in the center of the pitch as of late and he likely gets called upon again to partner Michael Carrick in the middle. Paul Scholes is a strong possibility as well. Park Ji-Sung, a favorite of manager Sir Alex Ferguson's for away European matches, likely gets deployed on the left flank. Expect to see either Antonio Valencia or Nani as the wide right player. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is the likely striker choice and Wayne Rooney can be expected to play in a central playmaking role. A '4-2-3-1 shape is most likely, although a '4-3-3/4-5-1' hybrid shape is a favorite of the Gaffer's in recent years for European ties. If the latter shape is used, expect to see Rooney lead the attacking line as it's fulcrum and for another central midfielder to be brought on.
Schalke play in an offensive '4-4-2' and all indications are that Schalke intend to attack United. Neuer is the No 1 and his center-back pairing, if fully healthy, is expected to be Howedes and Christoph Metzelder. However, iff Howedes is unable to play, Joel Matip is likely to deputize for him. Atsuto Uchida is the right-back and Hans Sarpei is the left-back; both full-backs are very attack-minded and look to get forward. Kyriakos Papadopoulos will likely play as a holding-midfielder and his partner will probably be either the playmaking Jose Jurado or the more defense-minded Matip. Jefferson Farfan is the first-choice wide right player and either Jurado or Alexander Baumjohann are the likely choice as the wide left-player. Edu is likely to fill-in for the injured Huntelaar at striker. Raul, the Champions League's all-time goalscorer with 71 goals, will play in a withdrawn role. The former Real Madrid great has scored four goals in three matches versus United in the past.
* UPDATE * Howedes is not considered doubtful for the match due to this abdominal strain. Matip is likely to fill-in at center-back.
Be sure to check back in with us as we'll continually have injury and lineup projection updates as news comes in from the pre-match press conference.
Tactical Keys to the match:
* United's wide players versus Schalke's full-backs: 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.
* Between the lines: If United do play in their recent '4-2-3-1' shape, then both sides will be playing in similar fashion. Both look to play with width and attack down the flanks. In addition, both sides have an influential attacker that likes come deep for the ball and operate in the space that is between the opponent's defense and midfield lines. For United, that is Rooney and for Schalke, that is Raul. Both also work hard defensively to consistently track back and get goal-side of their opponent's deepest central midfielder; this helps prevent from being overrun by sides that deploy three central-midfielders. In Schalke's recent encounter with Inter, Papadopoulos was asked to mark Wesley Sneijder, a task that he did reasonably well at. Rooney's role in recent months has him occupying the similar spaces on the pitch to where Sneijder likes to operate in. If Papadopoulos can be similarly effective against Rooney, then United's attack likely becomes predictable and one-dimensional; purely from the wide players. As for Raul, Ferdinand and Carrick will have to communicate effectively and zonally mark the Spaniard. The same principles similarly apply to Schalke's attack if Raul is contained.
* United's counter-attack: This match certainly has the potential to be an open affair. If Schalke do indeed come out with an all-out attack mindset, United's tactical response will surely be to stay organized, compact, and surgically strike back on the counter. This is further possible because these are tactics that both sides probably tend to prefer, especially when considering who the home and away sides are for this match. If United do absorb pressure and look to hit on the counter, then there will be a few keys for them to be successful with this tactic: (1) Carrick and/or Scholes must be able to provide long diagonal balls behind Schalke's forward-bombing full-backs; space should be there to exploit for United's wingers and Chicharito to run onto. (2) Rooney must be able to link the midfield to the attack; his ability to find space and time on the ball will be key because he can both provide the wingers with service higher up the pitch or he can use his vision and range of passing to hurt Schalke with a killer pass. (3) Chicharito's pace and movement -- the Mexican striker's pace and intelligent movement will be important in helping to stretch the defense both vertically and horizontally.
Odds: Schalke 11/5, Draw 9/4, Manchester United 6/5
Prediction: Schalke 1-2 Manchester United