The semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League have a contrasting look about them, with Spain’s big two squaring off in an all-La Liga tie and an English giant taking on a German side appearing in the last four for the first time.
While most eyes will be on episode three of the April soap opera between Real Madrid, the most successful side in the competition with nine wins in all, and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Manchester United’s tie with Schalke does not lack appeal. The English side are aiming to return to Wembley, the scene of their maiden 1968 triumph, while the Germans are full of confidence after eliminating defending champions Inter Milan in the last round.
Tuesday 26 April (second leg on Wednesday 4 May)
Wednesday 27 April (second leg on Tuesday 3 May)
Real Madrid-Barcelona, Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, 20.45 CET
This latest instalment of a long-running rivalry comes 51 years to the day after Madrid defeated the Catalans 3-1 at the Camp Nou en route to their fifth consecutive European title. The two sides have been regular fixtures in continental semi-finals since then, Madrid winning 12 out of 21 and losing nine, and Barcelona winning five out of 11 and losing six.
Wednesday’s meeting is their fourth this season and their third in ten days. Beaten 5-0 at the Camp Nou in November, Jose Mourinho’s side secured a 1-1 draw in the return league fixture at the Bernabeu and then beat Barça 1-0 in last week’s Copa del Rey final in Valencia.
Three days later the Portuguese made nine changes for a league match at Valencia and looked on with satisfaction as Gonzalo Higuain helped himself to a hat-trick, with a sparkling Kaka scoring twice and Karim Benzema chipping in with another in a 6-3 win.
Later on Saturday, Guardiola followed suit, resting six players for the home meeting with Osasuna before bringing Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi on during the second half. Lacking their usual fluency, Barcelona recorded an unconvincing 2-0 victory, with Messi hitting his 50th goal of the campaign.
With Barcelona some way short of their form earlier in the season, Mourinho will be hopeful of further success on Wednesday but will have to make do without his midfield guard dog Pepe, who is suspended. The question is, will the Madrid coach stick to the safety-first, counter-attacking gameplan that served him so well last week or will he adopt a more adventurous approach, perhaps drafting the revitalised Kaka back into the side?
Schalke-Manchester United, Arena AufSchalke, 20.45 CET
As much as Ralf Rangnick would like his side to be regarded as underdogs, the fact is they have a formidable home record in this season’s competition, winning all five of their games in Gelsenkirchen, scoring 13 goals in the process and conceding three.
Though Schalke slumped to their sixth home defeat in the Bundesliga against Kaiserslautern at the weekend and lie a modest tenth in the table, their European exploits this season make them dangerous opponents for Manchester United.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have a fifth European Cup/Champions League final in their sights as they enter the business end of the season. United are also gunning for the English Premier League title and face decisive meetings with Arsenal and Chelsea in the next couple of weeks, though the Scotsman insists they are ready for that challenge and for Schalke.
The men in red have the tightest defence of the four teams left in the competition but have scored fewer goals than any of their fellow semi-finalists: 12 as opposed to the Germans’ 21 and the 24 scored by the Spanish duo.
That said, United are still sure to pose a potent threat with Wayne Rooney and the incisive Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez up front and Park Ji-Sung providing support from the midfield. At the back, goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar is maintaining his high standards at the age of 40, buoying the three-time champions’ belief that they can maintain their unbeaten away record in this season’s tournament.
Player to watch
Raul’s hopes of reaching another Champions League final, this time against his old club, hinge on him getting the better of United once again. The veteran Spaniard has scored four times in two Champions League ties against the English side and is the leading marksman in the competition’s history with 71 goals. The scorer of 12 Bundesliga goals and five in Europe for the Germans already this season, Raul is hoping his vast experience, work-rate and still deadly finishing can help set up his dream final.
2 - This is the third time that Real Madrid and Barcelona have faced each other in the semi-finals of Europe’s premier club competition. Madrid won both previous ties, prevailing 6-2 on aggregate in 1960 and 3-1 in 2002, going on to win the competition on both occasions. Will it be third time lucky for Barça or a hat-trick for the men in white?
What they said
“It goes without saying that we’re the outsiders. There’s no point in even arguing about it. But if things go our way, we can definitely make the final,” Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick.
Have your say
What tactics should Real Madrid adopt for Wednesday’s first leg?