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Manchester United vs. Schalke: United Look To Lock Up Champions League Final Berth

Last Sunday’s visit to Arsenal didn’t turn out as hoped, but as ill-timed and disappointing of a defeat the 1-0 reverse at the Emirates was, it’s not remotely the end of the world for Manchester United, especially with two doses of home cooking in what amounts to the most important week of the season to date.

A positive result against Arsenal would have allowed United to clinch the Premier League title with a home win over Chelsea on Sunday, and Sir Alex Ferguson put out a side more than capable of getting a draw or a win against a previously struggling Arsenal side, but we allowed the hosts to take advantage of a golden goalscoring opportunity, and we didn’t do the same on our end. As a result, United fell to defeat for only the fourth time this season and were blanked for only the fifth time this season.

Considering that the defeat, combined with Chelsea’s controversial 2-1 win over Tottenham on Saturday, allowed Carlo Ancelotti’s side to close within three points of United ahead of their visit to Old Trafford, many might already be looking ahead to Sunday’s clash of the titans and playing out scenario after scenario.

However, the task there is a simple one: win, and the title is one point away, but as important as that match is to United’s ambitions, there’s business to be taken care of before then, with United 90 minutes away from a place in the Champions League final at Wembley.

We already know that, if we seal the deal tonight, we’ll face Barcelona, and just as Sunday’s match against Chelsea conjures up bad memories and thoughts of revenge, so does the showdown that likely looms against Messi, Xavi, and Co., who dispatched of Real Madrid 3-1 on aggregate.

But before we can look ahead to May 28, we have a job to do tonight. That job was made a lot less difficult with last week’s 2-0 win in Germany, a win that could have and likely should have been more comprehensive, save for several saves by Manuel Neuer, who will no doubt be hoping that his defense puts him in a much better position than it did last Tuesday, when he was hung out to dry on numerous occasions.

He was up to the task in those situations throughout the first half and into the second half, thanks in part to some poor finishing on United’s part, but the breakthrough came midway through the second half, and with well-taken goals from Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney, we’re halfway to a third Champions League final in four years.

With a solid lead coming into the home leg and Sunday’s title tilt against Chelsea in mind, United will be resting multiple regulars tonight. Some could look at that as underestimating tonight’s opponents and thereby giving them a small window of hope, but the bare fact is that some players do need a rest ahead of Chelsea’s visit, and you can be sure that Schalke are still being taken very seriously, even with the lead that we have.

Besides, even with Rooney (who’s apparently dealing with a tweaked hamstring), Giggs, Javier Hernandez, Fabio, and Rio Ferdinand all not in the mix tonight, at least not from the start, United will field a lineup that is strong enough to see Schalke off tonight.

It looks like Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen could start up front tonight, and those two experienced frontmen have the ability and eye for goal to test Neuer on a regular basis tonight and get the goals that help United close the tie out with little pressure. Paul Scholes is in contention for a starting place in midfield, and he’ll be fresh after being suspended for our last three Premier League matches and having not started since the FA Cup semifinal against City in which he was sent off. We could also see Darren Fletcher make a return to the starting lineup after being absent for the last two months due to a nasty virus, and his comeback couldn’t come at a better time, as he’ll most certainly have a key role to play down the stretch for United.

As for the visitors, they’ll have the services of striker and former United target Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who’s set to return after spending the last couple of months on the sidelines with a knee injury. United will be fielding a strong back line even with Rio and Fabio out, so we’ll have the horses to contend with the formidable pairing of Huntelaar and Raul.

After a frenetic opening sequence, it was mostly one-way traffic the rest of the way in the first leg, but with Schalke needing to attack to have any chance at all of putting a little fear into United, they’ll have to take some chances from the outset. However, taking chances on one end means being opened up on the other, and although that likely means seeing a little more Neuer brilliance, it will also mean that United should have their place in Wembley locked up sooner than later.

Prediction: Manchester United 3-1 Schalke