For every truly elite football club, the objective at the start of every season is win the highest honors, to be the very best of the best and nothing less.
And so we enter the most important week and a half in Manchester United’s 2010/11 season, with those objectives so close, yet still so far away. After the next 13 days, the picture will be far clearer on just how successful this campaign has been and will be for United.
180 minutes from a Champions League final in your home country. 180 minutes from securing English football’s most hallowed record.
The first step begins tonight, and as tough as Sunday’s trip to Arsenal and the following Sunday’s visit from Chelsea will be, tonight’s showdown with Schalke looms as the toughest one of all, even if our opponents are lying 10th in the Bundesliga, markedly closer to last-place St. Pauli than likely champions Borussia Dortmund.
As has been mentioned many times in many places leading up to tonight’s match, history is very much against United when it comes to European trips to Germany.
The last time United were able to record an away win against German competition in a knockout tie in Europe was in November 1965, a 2-0 win over Vorwarts Berlin in the first round of that season’s European Cup.
After that tie, United didn’t face another such trip for more than three decades, but over the last decade-plus, there have been semi-regular meetings against German opposition in Europe. No one will ever forget the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona, but as for matches against German opposition in Germany, well…it hasn’t been pretty.
In their last nine visits to Germany, United have all of two wins, a 2-1 win at Bayer Leverkusen in the first group stage of the 2002/03 Champions League, and a 2-1 win over VfL Wolfsburg in the group stage of last season’s competition.
Other than that, United have fallen short, especially when it’s mattered the most. Worse yet, those failures aided in European elimination.
In 1997, United faced Borussia Dortmund in the semis, and after a 1-0 defeat in Germany, fell 1-0 at Old Trafford to the eventual champions. Four seasons later, it was a Bayern-United rematch in the quarters, and after a 1-0 defeat at home in the first leg, United were sent packing with a 2-1 defeat in Munich. The next season, it was Michael Ballack and Bayer Leverkusen who dumped United out in the semifinals, drawing 2-2 at Old Trafford after United had twice led, then overturning an early United lead to draw 1-1 at home and progress to the final on away goals.
So, even though some might have penned United in for a berth in next month’s final at Wembley against either Barcelona or Real Madrid, you can be sure that the team itself isn’t underestimating Schalke.
Sure, we’re clear favorites, there’s no doubt about that. Sure, we’re the better team, despite the weak spots we have and the lapses we’re prone to. Sure, we have a marked advantage in experience and success at this stage.
But as mentioned, Schalke have favorable history on their side. More than that, they haven’t shown the least bit of fear in Europe this season, and you can expect that same attitude against United. Their only defeat came away to Lyon in their first group stage match; since then, they’ve reeled off seven wins and two draws, finishing top of Group B ahead of Lyon and Europa League semifinalists Benfica, eliminating Valencia 4-2 on aggregate in the round of 16, and sending defending European champions Inter packing in the quarterfinals with a shocking 7-3 aggregate win.
Tonight’s hosts also look to have a quality that’s been a defining part of United’s success over the last two decades and especially this season: resiliency. In the round of 16, they fell behind early in the first leg at the Mestalla and battled back for a 1-1 draw, then fell behind early again (in fact, at the same juncture – the 17th minute) in the second leg at home before scoring three goals without reply to seal the win on the night and on aggregate. Then, against Inter, Schalke fell behind in the first minute at the San Siro thanks to a Dejan Stankovic stunner (one of the goals of the competition), then equalized (in the 17th minute!) only to fall behind again. All Inter from there, right? It proved to be quite the opposite, with Inter completely falling apart and Schalke playing like champions in a 5-2 win that all but decided the tie even before the second leg in Gelsenkirchen.
It doesn’t hurt to have the Champions League’s all-time leading scorer in their ranks either, in Raul, who’s had quite the rebirth after leaving Real Madrid last summer. Raul has scored 18 goals in all competitions this season, including five in Europe to take his all-time tally to 71. And on the other end of the pitch, there’s another familiar name in Schalke keeper and reported United target Manuel Neuer. Neuer, who appears destined for Bayern Munich, will need to be on top of his game tonight and next Wednesday at Old Trafford, given the amount of traffic that he should expect to receive in his direction.
So, Schalke have reason to be confident against United. But if there was ever a time for us to stop our streak of struggles against German opposition, it’s now.
United have already handled some hoodoo in their run to the semis, scoring a rare, rare win in Spain with their win over Valencia in the group stage, and winning at Chelsea for the first time in almost nine years in the last round. And with the exception of the goalless draw at Marseille in the round of 16, United have risen to the occasion away from home in Europe, in contrast to their ups and downs away from home domestically.
United also have the attacking prowess to take advantage of Schalke’s suspect back line and pepper Neuer’s personal space with many a shot. And after going with two forwards in both legs against Chelsea, there’s no reason to go away from that against a much more questionable defense, especially with the form that both Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez have been in.
As is the case in any away first leg in the Champions League knockout stages, the objective tonight is to nab an away goal and leave with the tie in your favor, whether by virtue of a win or a scoring draw. We scored early in this situation against Bayern last season and at Chelsea in the last round, and doing so tonight would put the onus on Schalke to attack us, thereby opening themselves up to get further opened up. The numbers are in our favor, given that Schalke haven’t had a clean sheet in any of their knockout round ties. So, there’s definitely a way past Neuer, if we come out with the right intent and don’t let up.
Not finishing off Bayern when we had the chance to after that early lead came back to haunt us in the end, and there’s no doubt Fergie will be demanding killer instinct, opportunism, clinical finishing, and last but not least, avoiding the kind of lapses that proved costly against Bayern last season.
Schalke will be ready. They’re talking the talk, and they’ve got reason to speak confidently.
But we will be ready too. There’s history to reverse, and there’s history to make. So many times this season, United have stood tall and risen to the occasion in key situations, played like the champions that Manchester United aspire to be every season.
Should we expect anything less tonight?
Prediction: Schalke 1-2 Manchester United
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