Champions League semifinals set
The semifinal round of the Champions League is set: Premier League leaders Manchester United will face German surprises Schalke while Spanish powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid are set for a massive season-defining tilt.
Every Champions League game is live and in HD across the FOX family, and we break down what you can expect to see in two weeks time.
Manchester United vs. Schalke 04 (April 26 at the Veltins; return leg May 4)
United look like a team of destiny, gritting out win after win no matter who is wearing a red shirt. It's a spectacular performance from an aging side that pre-season was thought to be lucky to finish third. Instead, United are in line for a domestic double to be capped with a Euro title. They are playing with a confidence that borders on the arrogant.
Wayne Rooney has finally shaken off injury and the effects of the 2010 World Cup. He is peaking at exactly the right time; Nani has been a demon; and Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar look like 25 year olds. Add in the big-game presence of Park Ji-Sung and the invaluable Nemanja Vidic and you have a side that no one wants to face.
Credit Sir Alex Ferguson, and set aside all the games he plays with the media; that's just noise to cover for his players and distract his opponents. On the field, he has shown that he is the consummate man-manager, skillfully tending to egos and ensuring that his players remain fresh. He has every player at every level of the club convinced that they can and will win every game. It's masterful.
Schalke are the great weird team of the season - there's always one. They sacked their manager Felix Magath despite being in line to win two major titles (this one plus the German Cup) and while their Bundesliga form is tepid, they continue to show up in this competition.
Schalke have gotten yeoman work from Manuel Neuer in the nets and shockingly competent defending from youngsters Josef Matip, Atsuto Uchida and Kyriakos Papadopoulos. Jefferson Farfan has been one of the great creators, feeding the deadly Raul, and new manager Ralf Raganick seems to have this team playing with some joy again. The return of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (out injured) might well offer them something United will find hard to deal with.
While Schalke will surely be underdogs, United will be mindful of their rude exit at the hands of another German side (Bayern) last season in the quarters.
Real Madrid vs. Barcelona (April 27 at the Bernabeu; return leg May 3)
What a clash. The Gran Clasico is already a world-wide sensation; this Champions League series now means that the arch-rivals are set to face off four times in 18 days with no less than three major titles on the line. Keep in mind that in their first meeting this season, Barcelona thumped Real 5-0 in a master class. That's not likely to happen again.
Barcelona are rightly praised for their silky football and the stunning brilliance of Lionel Messi, but they get far too little credit for the tactical acumen of Pep Guardiola. Barcelona can hold the ball and pass a team to death, but what is often overlooked is that they never release the ball into space without giving their teammate at least three options. Their off the ball movement and spatial awareness is second to none, and while some of Messi's play seems otherwordly, his improvisation is only possible because of the vision and planning on the part of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Iniesta had a large shout for the World Player of the Year honor that went to Messi - indeed, many of his Spain teammates thought he should have won - but if it has bothered him, he hasn't shown it. Messi, for his part, has used it as a spark: he's scored an astonishing 48 goals this season with weeks left to play, tying a mark set 60 years ago by Telmo Zarra. It is not far-fetched to think that he can hit 60 goals in the run-in.
Real Madrid may not have the cohesion of the Catalans, but they have the smarts and the grit, and Jose Mourinho is rightly considered if not the best manager on the planet, then darn close.
Cristiano Ronaldo is having a lights-out year, scoring 28 goals in the league and 40 overall, a mark that is only eclipsed by, well, Messi. It's still a stunning performance and it speaks to the work of Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso and the steel provided by Ricardo Carvalho in the back. Karim Benzema after a soft start has been a revelation and Gonzalo Higuain has made a comeback after a back injury to give Madrid some spark down the stretch.
The league currently seems out of reach for Madrid who trail Barcelona by eight points. So bet that Mourinho will have all his firepower saved for this competition and what promises to be an enthralling match-up at every level.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.