United have mixed team news ahead of tonight’s Champions League Semi-final tie against Schalke at the Veltins-Arena. United’s and the League’s top-goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov has not travelled with the squad as he continues to struggle with a groin strain that has seen him miss the last two games.
Besides United’s number nine, Darren Fletcher will miss out once again in his bid to regain fitness for the end of the season, after a mystery illness that’s kept him out since March 6th.
In more positive news a number of players are ready to return to the team after being rested for Saturday’s victory over Everton. Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling, Park Ji-Sung and Michael Carrick are all likely to feature at some point after sitting out – either completely or as an unused substitute, on Saturday afternoon.
Patrice Evra didn’t start a game for the first time since February 19th and is expected to replace John O’Shea at left-back. The Frenchman hasn’t been performing to the high standards United fans have become accustomed to for the majority of the season, with burnout likely to be causing the loss of form; Evra has missed just ten games out of 53 in all competitions this term.
Ryan Giggs is another player likely to regain his place in the starting eleven; partnering Carrick in a central-midfield role as the two hope to pick up where they left off after impressive performances against Chelsea in both legs of the Quarter-final. Unfortunately it will mean that Anderson will lose his place in the team despite a man of the match performance at the weekend to make way for the last-round’s successful midfield partnership.
Either Rafael or Fabio da Silva will start at right-back ahead of John O’Shea to give United more speed down the wing as they look to counter the attacking threat posed and exploit the space left by Schalke’s full-backs. Fabio has played very well when he’s deputised at right-back this season and after another good performance at the weekend might feel hard done by if he’s replaced by his more-experienced twin.
The Reds are yet to concede away from home in Europe this season and if Schalke fail to score this evening then Edwin van der Sar will become the first goalkeeper in history to reach 50 clean sheets in the European Cup/Champions League. Calls for the Dutchman to sign one more year are falling on deaf ears despite Holland’s record appearance maker continuing to impress. On Saturday with the game at 0-0, van der Sar made a fantastic save from a deflected effort that seemed destined for the goal.
Keeping out Schalke however will be no easy task. The Gelsenkirchen outfit have won all of the games at the Veltins-Arena in Europe this season and in the last-round put 7 goals past defending Champions Inter. This is Schalke’s first appearance in the Semi-final of the Champions League but the team is full of experience; centre-back Cristoph Metzelder played in the 2002 World Cup Final, ‘keeper Manuel Neuer is considered one of the best in the World and forward Raul is the competition’s all-time leading goalscorer.
The 33-year-old Spaniard has had a good time in his inaugural season in Germany and is Schalke’s leading goalscorer. His performances against Inter in the Quarter-final ties have seen Raul earmarked as their danger man, and United’s defenders will have to be wary as they come up against one of the finest attacking players of the last twenty years.
United’s record against German opposition in the Champions League isn’t a good one, especially in the knockout stages. United’s only wins in the latter-stages of the competition against German team have both been against Bayern Munich. 1999’s victory over the Bavarians in the final took United to a second European Cup, while last year’s 3-2 Quarter-final victory wasn’t enough to avoid defeat on away goals. Bayern comprehensively beat United 4-1 on aggregate in 2001 on their way to a fourth European title and a year later United were once more dumped out on away goals, this time in the Semi-finals by Bayer Leverkusen. United’s poor form against German teams began in the 1997 Semi-final as a Jurgen Kohler inspired Borussia Dortmund knocked them out 2-0 on aggregate.
This is the first time that United have ever faced Schalke and Sir Alex Ferguson has described himself as “apprehensive” ahead of the clash. Experience will be a big factor in United heading for a fifth European Cup Final, but it’s 22-year-old Mexican Javier Hernandez whose pace and movement could be vital if The Reds are to progress.
1. van der Sar; 21. Rafael, 5. Ferdinand, 15. Vidic, 3. Evra; 25. Valencia, 16. Carrick, 11. Giggs, 13. Park; 10. Rooney, 14. Hernandez.