GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany, April 26 – If Manchester United are to reach a third Champions League final in four years, they must overcome both surprise package Schalke 04 and a dismal record against German teams.
United visit Schalke in their semi-final first leg on Tuesday, bidding to reach the final at Wembley 43 years after they beat Benfica there to become the first English champions of Europe.
Schalke stunned holders Inter Milan 7-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals though, and they have little to lose ahead of United’s trip to the Veltins Arena.
It is the first time the Gelsenkirchen club have appeared in the last four of Europe’s premier cup competition, but they will take heart from United’s historic struggles against German opposition.
Despite having memorably beaten Bayern Munich to win the final of the 1999 tournament, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men are yet to win in four two-legged ties against German teams.
Bayern accounted for United at the quarter-final stage in both 2001 and 2010, but more appropriate comparisons can be made with their semi-final defeats by Borussia Dortmund, in 1997, and Bayer Leverkusen, in 2002.
On both occasions United were strongly tipped to progress, only to lose 2-0 on aggregate to eventual champions Dortmund in 1997 and go out on away goals against Leverkusen five years later.
Ferguson will be acutely aware of the similarities and he will also be wary of the dangerous have-a-go mentality forged in the Schalke ranks during their astonishing 5-2 first-leg success at Inter in the previous round.
"The German teams have always had that resilience and determination about them and that will be exactly the same on Tuesday night," said Ferguson.
"We’re going into this game with far more experience than we have in previous years and our record away from home in the last few years has been terrific."
Whatever happens on Tuesday, something will have to give, as Schalke have a 100 percent home record in this season’s competition while United are yet to concede a goal on their travels.
Manuel Neuer will be the man seeking to keep United at bay and Ferguson is thought to be an admirer of the Germany goalkeeper, who has announced that he will not extend his Schalke contract when it expires in 2012.
An 83rd-minute header from Javier Hernandez earned United a 1-0 win at home to Everton on Saturday that preserved their six-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
It was their fourth win in five top-flight games, taking the club to within seven points of a record 19th English title.
In stark contrast, Schalke’s 1-0 loss at home to Kaiserslautern left the Royal Blues in mid-table anonymity in the Bundesliga — 11 points above the relegation zone and 17 points shy of the Champions League places in 10th.
Coach Ralf Rangnick shuffled his pack in a bid to keep key players fresh and he is expected to restore midfielders Jose Jurado, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Alexander Baumjohann to the starting XI.
Centre-back Benedikt Howedes, who crashed home the winner in the 2-1 second-leg defeat of Inter, is also set to return from injury.
"I selected the team in such a way because I wanted to win both of our games (against Kaiserslautern and United)," explained Rangnick, who took over from Felix Magath last month.
"In the Champions League, we will select a different starting 11 again."
United also made wholesale changes against Everton and captain Nemanja Vidic will return to the heart of the defence after being rested for the Merseysiders’ visit.
Right-back Rafael could start after returning to the squad following a hamstring injury sustained in the first leg of the 3-1 aggregate quarter-final win over Chelsea, but striker Dimitar Berbatov (groin) is a slight doubt.