Manchester United return to Old Trafford on Wednesday night for the return leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final tie against Schalke 04. Last week in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, United convincingly won 0-2 and only a heroic display by Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer prevented the margin from being larger. Despite overwhelming the German side, the Red Devils didn't score until the 67th minute when Ryan Giggs scored to become the oldest goal-scorer in the history of the competition. Wayne Rooney added another just two minutes later and United went on to comfortably win; they will now be heavy favorites to reach the Champions League final at Wembley on 28 May.
United are battling for trophies on two fronts; with only three matches remaining in the Barclays Premier League, the Reds have seen their lead dwindled down to three points after losing at the Emirates on Sunday to Arsenal FC. The side that they are three points clear of, Chelsea FC, will come visit the 'Theatre of Dreams' this upcoming Sunday for a potential title-deciding clash. If United are able to hold onto their Champions League semi-final lead over Schalke, the English giant will have earned a third trip to the final in the past four years.
Fatigue is likely a bigger concern than injuries for the club. United have seemingly faced a massively important match every three or four days for the past few weeks and that same urgency continues this week. The one major injury concern that they do have is to midfielder Darren Fletcher. The Scotsman has battled a virus for the past few months; one that has knocked him out of action during this time and also caused him to lose a significant amount of weight. He has returned to training and even participated in a reserves match in the past week, however, his recovery and return to fitness is being handled conservatively. Owen Hargreaves and Anders Lindegaard continue to be out with long-term injuries as well.
* UPDATE* It appears that Wayne Rooney might miss the match after sitting out of training on Tuesday morning due to a tight hamstring. Fabio also missed training after suffering a knock in Sunday's match versus Arsenal FC. Darren Fletcher and Anders Lindegaard both appear to be available. Here is a full update on United's injuries on the eve of the match.
The German side have been decidedly disappointing in the Bundesliga as they currently sit 10th in the table. However, Schalke have impressed during their current and first-ever semi-final run in Champions League and also by reaching the final in Germany's domestic cup competition, the DFB-Pokal. In recent weeks, Schalke have shown poor form by going winless in four straight matches in all competitions, including a 1-4 defeat by Bayern Munich over the past weekend. It would be a shocking result at Old Trafford if the German side were able to earn passage to the Champions League final at Wembley.
Benedikt Howedes missed the match versus United last week due to an abdominal strain and it appears the center-back will miss Wednesday's match as well due to the same injury. Striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar continues to be out due to a long-term knee injury.
*UPDATE * It now appears that Howedes and Huntelaar may be available for the match. The former would likely start if fit enough while the later may be used in a substitute's role.
TACTICAL HIGHLIGHTS FROM LAST WEEK'S MATCH
* 4-4-1-1 vs 4-4-1-1: Each side's general shape was 4-4-2, but both could more accurately be described as a 4-4-1-1. Both Rooney and Raul Gonzalez were deployed in withdrawn roles in attack, however, while the United number ten did well to track back and help his side defend when they were out of possession, Raul failed to get goal-side of United's deepest lying midfielder, Michael Carrick. This allowed United's deep-lying playmaker to dictate play by completing 94 passes out of an attempted 108 (87%); the distribution was both varied and impressive in range.
* United's wide players tracking Schalke's full-backs: Schalke's effective wide play versus Inter Milan in the quarter-final may have been the primary reason that the German side advanced past the defending European champions. Inter play extremely narrow, thus, Schalke's full-backs continually got forward in available space and created 2 v 1 situations on the flanks. United effectively dealt with this potential threat by using Park Ji-sung and Antonio Valencia on the flanks; each winger effectively tracked back to nullify the threat. As a result, Schalke's attack sputtered.
* Between the lines: Quite simply, Schalke did not play compact enough and United exploited this, particularly Rooney. Wazza has thrived in recent months by coming deep into the space in between the defense and midfield lines; from here he's been a creative force. Schalke's failure to stay compact widened this space and their holding midfielder, Kyriakos Papadopolous, struggled mightily to track Rooney's intelligent movement. In addition, Papadopolous' central midfield partner Jose Jurado failed to consistently get back when his side was out of possesion; the result was too much space being left for his midfield partner to defend.
* Note* Here is our full review from last week.
It's quite possible that United use a similar lineup and shape that worked so well for them last week. However, Fergie has hinted at changes:
"I will make some changes on Wednesday without question. I will bring Paul Scholes back in, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen. We'll need to do that but I will probably keep my experienced players at the back."
Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that the mentioned players will all start. Starting at the back, "experienced players" likely means Edwin van der Sar in goal with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as the center-back pairing. It's possible that the capable Chris Smalling could deputise for Ferdinand if the latter needs a rest ahead of Sunday's match versus Chelsea. This also certainly means Patrice Evra at left-back and the possibility of John O'Shea at right-back, although don't be surprised to see either of the da Silva twins deployed. Projecting both shape and personnel in the midfield and attack is more difficult. Scholes likely will be called upon in the central midfield, and he could be joined there by either Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Anderson, or Darron Gibson. Park and Valencia are the most likely wide players, however, Nani and Giggs are possibilities as well. Any two of Rooney, Berbatov, Owen, and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez could be tasked as strikers. If Fergie elects to play in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape, then Rooney is most likely to lead the attacking line as the fulcrum. Lineup choices will likely be strongly influenced with Chelsea in mind. I wouldn't be surprised to see Fergie rotate his squad a bit, but if that's the case, he'll have his big guns ready for any needed substitutions should things go bad.
As for Schalke, manager Raif Rangnick will field his strongest side, however, he certainly will consider possible changes after United's clear superiority last week. Neuer will be in goal and the center-back tandem likely will be Christoph Metzelder and Joel Matip. Expect to see Atsuto Uchida at right-back and Hans Sarpei at left-back. Papadopoulos and Jurado are the likely central midfield pairing again, however, the latter may be moved wide if Rangnick wants a bit more bite in defense. Jefferson Farfan is almost certain to the be the wide right player and either Jurado or Alexander Baumjohann will likely be the wide left player. Edu and Raul are the expected striker tandem; the latter in a withdrawn role.
* Between the lines: Quite simply, Schalke need to be more compact vertically. They cannot leave the space in between the lines again, otherwise, players like Rooney, Scholes, and Carrick will break them down in space with their vision and range of passing. In addition, by decreasing the space between the lines, Papadopoulos won't be forced to chase Rooney so much in acres of available space throughout the pitch. Even if Rooney is rested and Owen is brought on, the latter has evolved his game over the past few years and he also is capable of coming deep to receive and distribute effectively.
* United's wide players vs Schalke's full-backs: The other key tactical battle from the first leg was the ability of United's wide players to nullify the attacking threat of Schalke's full-backs. By tracking back consistently, Park helped prevent his full-back Evra from continually being exposed to vulnerable 2 v 1 situations when Uchida bombed forward. On the other flank, Valencia pinned back Sarpei; when Baumjohann drifted toward the center of the pitch, it was Fabio who was the most effective attacking full-back because he was the one with the most space to move forward into.
* Will Schalke make changes?: Clearly, Schalke's tactics weren't the answer to overcome United's talent advantage during the first leg. United have been vulnerable at times this season to teams that press them with energetic midfielders; it's still quite surprising that Schalke didn't use this tactic at home. Schalke is unlikely to change shape for the match, however, they may attempt to change things up by pressing and trying to speed up the match's tempo. This might not only disrupt United's possesion, but the quicker tempo may allow the German side to create more goal-scoring chances; a minimum of two goals are needed to extend this tie. A slight shape change that Schalke could make is to play with two holding-midfielders; this may free up their attackers to get forward with more freedom.
Odds: Manchester United 4/9, Draw 10/3, Schalke 6/1
Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Schalke (4-1 agg.)