Barcelona and Manchester United put one foot in the final of the UEFA Champions League at Wembley Stadium on 28 May when they posted respective 2-0 wins away to Real Madrid and Schalke 04 in last week’s semi-final first legs.
History is against Real and Schalke: no team has ever come back from losing at home by two goals in the competition before. Strangely, all four semi-finalists lost their league matches at the weekend, and with nerves jangling at the season’s end, there could yet be a twist in the tail in the week’s return fixtures.
Tuesday 3 May
Barcelona-Real Madrid (Barcelona lead 2-0 on aggregate)
Wednesday 4 May
Manchester United-Schalke 04 (Manchester United lead 2-0 on aggregate)
Barcelona-Real Madrid, Camp Nou, 20.45 CET
Last week’s defeat at the Bernabeu means Jose Mourinho has no option but to change his gameplan and go for goals. Also forcing his hand are suspensions for Sergio Ramos and Pepe, his minder for Lionel Messi, though with the recently returned Gonzalo Higuain and Kaka both in form, he does have options up front.
The statistics plead in Barça’s favour. The Catalans have won 32 first-leg matches away from home in all UEFA competitions and have gone on to win all but two of those ties, advancing on all six occasions when winning the first leg 2-0. Real have lost at home in the first leg of a European Cup/Champions League tie on five occasions, and each time they have gone on to be eliminated.
Warning his players to expect a “difficult evening”, Pep Guardiola has yet more defensive headaches to contend with after Gabriel Milito and Martin Montoya both picked up injuries in the weekend defeat to Real Sociedad. One man fit and raring to go, however, is Lionel Messi, who has scored 52 goals so far this season. Eleven of those goals have come in the Champions League, leaving him just one behind Ruud van Nistelrooy’s competition record and three behind Jose Altafini’s all-time record of 14, achieved in the 1962/63 European Cup.
Manchester United - Schalke 04, Old Trafford, 20.45 CET
Wily campaigner Sir Alex Ferguson will not be taking anything for granted as his United side go in search of their third final appearance in the last four seasons. The men in red beat Chelsea in Moscow in 2008, but lost to Barcelona in Rome the following season.
Any euphoria they may have been feeling after winning 2-0 in Gelsenkirchen will have been dampened by Sunday’s 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, which has given Chelsea a chance of replacing them at the top of the table when they visit Old Trafford next weekend. United will have to put those domestic distractions out of their mind when the Germans come visiting, with Dimitar Berbatov, the top scorer in the Premier League with 23 goals, having recovered from injury and likely to challenge Javier Hernandez for a starting place.
Schalke suffered a severe case of stage fright in last week’s first leg and were indebted to goalkeeper Manuel Neuer for keeping the score down. German teams are famed for their fighting qualities, however, and coach Ralf Rangnick will no doubt be reminding his players that a repeat of their stunning 5-2 triumph at the San Siro in their quarter-final against Inter Milan will take them through.
Player to watch
Schalke are looking to the 23-year-old Spanish midfielder Jose Manuel Jurado to fire their challenge at Old Trafford. Though he lacks the profile of his compatriot Raul and goalkeeper Neuer, Jurado has impressed in ten Champions League outings this season, setting the tempo from midfield, while scoring twice and providing two assists.
13 - The number of 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ winners featuring in the Barcelona and Real Madrid squads: Iker Casillas, Raul Albiol, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso for Los Merengues and Victor Valdes, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro Rodriguez and David Villa for Los Cules, though not all of them will be lining up at the Camp Nou. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque will be hoping the rising tensions of the last few weeks will not have any negative effects on the national side.