Manchester United travel to the Veltins Tuesday night to face a tough Schalke side that has confounded experts and defied expectations (2 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer Channel). Ignore the fact that Schalke is a midtable Bundesliga team: This is hardly a cake-walk for a United side that seems to be strolling towards it’s 19th Premier League crown.
Overachievers, underarchievers or just plan unpredictable, it’s impossible to figure this Schalke team out. Tenth in the Bundesliga yet competing not only for the European Cup but the German Cup as well, Schalke have displayed their mediocre form in league play while remaining unstoppable in Europe.
This is also a side that has made drama a habit. They are currently on their second coach of the season after sacking Felix Magath, despite the fact that the gaffer got them close to where they are. Current manager Ralf Ragnick cheerfully told stunned reporters Monday at a press conference that his team were "outsiders, which in a way makes us feel good." Their goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer told the club he would be decamping last Wednesday – via a post on Facebook – then followed that up with a tearful press conference that did little to assuage the fans’ outrage.
That sort of kerfuffle wouldn’t be tolerated at Manchester United – remember the incandescence that surrounded Wayne Rooney earlier this season – and that discipline has helped the team remain on a near-robotic march towards glory. United have not looked particularly imposing of late; rather, they’ve been steady – mechanically winning. In England, that’s been enough in a year that saw Liverpool dive into the depths early, Chelsea lose flight in winter, and Arsenal completely concede the title with a series of gaffes that have left the London club a shambles.
Nani and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez have provided Sir Alex the needed punch, fed by a resurgent Rooney, finally shaking off his World Cup ghosts, but the untold story is the steel United have had in the back. Edwin van der Sar, shamefully overlooked by voters for a Player of the Year nod, has been transcendent, and the tandem of Nemanja Vidic and a finally-healthy Rio Ferdinand have been tough to beat. This weekend, United took another step towards the title when Antonio Valencia and Chicharito’s harassment of Tim Howard finally paid off with a late goal to down Everton 1-0.
United of course have an arsenal of weapons. Park Ji-Sung is one of the most capable big-game players anywhere, and Ryan Giggs’ performances in steering the midfield have belied his advancing years. Chicharito, who netted his 19th of the season, is in blazing form and with Valencia providing support out wide and the tenacious Nani pulling the defense apart, the Red Devils have to think goals can be had.
Schalke on the other hand, come into the game after yet another league loss – a 1-0 drop to sorry Kaiserslautern – but anyone who confuses their league form for their European is a patsy. Schalke haven’t lost at home in this tournament to date and crushed Inter Milan 7-3 on aggregate to get here. They ripped the defending champs 5-3 at the San Siro with an attacking display sparked by Jefferson Farfan, Edu and the ageless Raul. But like United, they draw their strength from the back, with Kryiakos Papadopolous, Joel Matip and Atsuto Uchida forming a young but shockingly mature baffle in front of Neuer, with Alex Baumjohann running from the flanks to both clean up the messes and kick start the attack.
Both teams have key absences: Dimitar Berbatov will not figure for United (groin) and long-term absentee Darren Fletcher (virus) did not travel. Schalke looks to be missing defender Benedikt Howedes (muscle strain) and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (knee).
One other note: The last time Rooney was in Gelsenkirchen, he was sent off. That was at the 2006 World Cup, when England’s run ended in the quarterfinals to Portugal.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay’s Premier League.