Ninety minutes without conceding a goal will take Manchester United into a third Champions League Final in four years to face Barcelona at Wembley on May 28th.
United have never lost a European game at Old Trafford by more than one goal and tonight Schalke 04 need to score three. If history guaranteed United’s passage to the Final then fans would be talking as if they’re already through, however Schalke’s “nothing to lose” mentality that saw them put five past Internazionale in Milan has left United and their supporters feeling apprehensive.
There are expected to be wholesale changes throughout the United team from the weekend’s defeat at Arsenal for tonight’s game. Dimitar Berbatov will start for the first time since the FA Cup Semi-final, and will either be partnered by or play just off of Michael Owen, who hasn’t started a game since January.
Wayne Rooney and Fabio da Silva are both likely to miss out because of a tight-hamstring and a knock respectively. Fabio will most probably be replaced by his brother at right-back, while John O’Shea could come in for Patrice Evra who may be rested.
Paul Scholes is expected to be brought back into the starting eleven after missing the last three Premier League games through suspension. Ryan Giggs will more than likely be rested for Sunday’s crucial game against Chelsea, after outstanding performances against the west-London outfit in both legs of the Champions League Quarter-final.
Tonight may also see the first-team return of Darren Fletcher, whose expected to appear on the bench and receive a half-hour appearance as he bids to get fully-fit for the final few games of the season.
In Gelsenkirchen last Tuesday, United’s central-midfielders were allowed plenty of time on the ball and it made for a game that was tantamount to attack vs. defence. Indeed, United feel hard done by that the score wasn’t greater than 2-0 and were it not for what Sir Alex Ferguson described as ‘one of the greatest ever performances against Manchester United’ by Manuel Neuer, it would’ve been.
Schalke haven’t won since their 2-1 victory over Inter in mid-April and come into tonight’s game on the back of a heavy 4-1 defeat against Bayern Munich at the weekend. Ralf Rangnick’s men appeared to suffer from stage fright in the first-leg and will have to play without that fear if they’re to stand any chance of progressing to the Final. Schalke will be boosted by the presence of highly-rated centre-back Benedict Höwedes, who returns to the team after missing out in Gelsenkirchen through injury.
An early goal for Die Königsblauen will instill nerves in United’s players and fans alike, and they will have to be prepared for a team going all-out to get back into the tie. That attacking mentality may also be the downfall of the Germans; as they push forward in numbers searching for a goal they will leave space that master counter-attackers United will look to exploit.
The games are coming thick and fast as the season’s end draws closer and closer and avoiding defeat tonight will give United the opportunity to make the campaign one of the most successful in the club’s history.
1. van der Sar; 21. Rafael, 12. Smalling, 15. Vidic, 22. O’Shea; 17. Nani, 18. Scholes, 28. Gibson, 13. Park; 9. Berbatov; 7. Owen.