“Anything is possible. We could even win the Champions League,” began Schalke's Atsuto Uchida, when interviewed by FIFA.com, and the player has every reason to be confident ahead of Tuesday evening’s UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg against Manchester United.
The Japan international is the first ever player from his homeland to reach the last four of Europe’s premier club competition. But instead of revelling in his own personal feats, the 23-year-old prefers to focus on his team’s somewhat surprising success on the continent this campaign.
“I’ve heard about that fact, but the most important thing is that my club, Schalke, are in the last four. It’s an incredible achievement,” he said, with all the modesty Bundesliga fans have come to expect from the industrious right-back.
Perhaps his humility stems from the Ruhr club’s difficult start to the season. After joining die Knappen from J-League outfit Kashima Antlers last summer, Uchida quickly became a regular under former boss Felix Magath. However, the team did require time to gel and struggled to reproduce the kind of form which helped them finish runners-up in the Bundesliga last term.
“I had to get used to the football in the Bundesliga. It’s one of the best leagues in the world and the term 'physicality' has a very different meaning over here than it does back home. It’s far more robust,” said the No22 on adapting to the German game.
These days it would be difficult to imagine the Schalke starting line-up without Uchida, an equally important figure in the team’s success as other more illustrious colleagues such as Champions League record goalscorer Raul and star goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. An ever present for Schalke in Europe since the group-stage match at home to Hapoel Tel Aviv, Uchida has also been a regular fixture in both the Bundesliga and German Cup.
Uchida’s growing reputation in north-west Germany was reflected in recent comments by new coach Ralf Rangnick, who took over for his second spell at the Arena AufSchalke just last month: “I’ve known the lad for three-and-a-half weeks and it’s just great fun to watch him every day. He’s going to be a very important player for Schalke over the next few years.”
No wonder the new man in charge rested the energetic defender along with five other key players in Saturday’s 1-0 Bundesliga defeat to Kaiserslautern, mindful that the 5'9 full-back has his work cut out for him in Tuesday night's semi-final.
After keeping Valencia’s Juan Manuel Mata under wraps in the Last 16 and again proving his defensive credentials against Inter Milan star Samuel Eto’o in the quarters, Uchida faces another huge test yet in the form of United’s evergreen winger Ryan Giggs.
"He’s one of the true greats of world football, in terms of both ability and fair play. Naturally I know his game well, but I’m sure the boss will take me aside and remind me of my duties,” said the right-back, in anticipation of an intriguing duel with the Welsh wizard.
Of course, far more important than the battle between young Uchida and United's 37-year-old record appearance holder is the overall contest between the two teams. Indeed, the sides could hardly have experienced more contrasting domestic league fortunes this term.
While the Red Devils are firmly on course to secure a record 19th national title, Schalke are condemned to mid-table mediocrity in the Bundesliga. In fact, at one stage before the winter break, they had even sunk to the very bottom of the table.
"This season has had all the highs and lows. We had a difficult start and for a while it was difficult to imagine we’d end up having such a successful season. However, I think the difficult times helped us pull together as a team,” Uchida explained.
The Royal Blues have indeed enjoyed far better luck in cup competitions. After reaching the final of the Germany Cup, a sensational double victory over reigning European champions Inter saw the Gelsenkirchen club into the semis of the Champions League for the first time in their history. By comparison, Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges narrowly missed out on a place in the English FA Cup final after losing 1-0 to local rivals Manchester City in the last four.
“We had a tough time in the Bundesliga after so many defeats at the start, but it’s been different in the cup competitions because we started winning early on," said Uchida. "That was important for our confidence.”
And whatever happens on Tuesday evening, one sequence will definitely come to an end. While Schalke have won all their home games in Europe this season, the visitors, who boast the meanest defence in the competition (three conceded), are yet to concede away from home.
A more detailed glance at the statistics reveals Schalke are perhaps even slight favourites, with United's only previous knockout-round victory over German opposition coming in the famous final of 1999. Their most recent attempt ended in defeat to Bayern Munich in last season’s quarter-finals.
Uchida is determined to ensure Schalke’s record remains intact by delivering another Goliath performance in front of a sell-out crowd of over 54,000: “Our target in the home leg has to be to win the match," he said as the interview concluded. "I’m going to give everything to make sure we reach the final at Wembley. It would be an unbelievably huge achievement.”