Barcelona, Madrid, Manchester – and Schalke. It might take a little getting used to, but the final four are set. German side Schalke are gearing up for an historic game in the Champions League semi-final.
Celebrating Raul's first goal for Schalke
One should use superlatives sparingly, but Schalke are about to play a truly historic game in the Champions League. For the first time in the club’s history, the team is in the semi-final of Europe's top soccer competition. They are amongst the giants of European football - Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and opponents Manchester United.
This feat is something to be proud of. "I think the whole football world will be looking at Gelsenkirchen," said Schalke defender Christoph Metzelder. And he's right, because not only are fans in Germany and England eagerly awaiting this match. Reporters from Spain, Italy, France and even Brazil are on hand, millions will be watching broadcasts around the world and of course the stadium will be sold out.
A new generation?
New coach Ralf Rangnick has instilled confidence in his young side
The anticipation is huge in and around Gelsenkirchen, where Schalke is based. The football-crazy city in the Ruhr Valley last tasted international success in 1997 after Schalke defeated Inter in the UEFA Cup final. But the match against the 18-time English champions is special, especially for young players like Alexander Baumjohann.
"It is every footballer’s dream to play in the Champions League," said Baumjohann. "I think you've chosen the wrong career if you are not excited about a semi-final against Manchester United."
Baumjohann is an example of a revitalized Schalke under new coach Ralf Rangnick. Though the squad is the same, the attitude and style of the players is different than under Felix Magath. Rangnick gave his young reserve players a chance, something that will carry over into the Manchester United clash because they did not disappoint him in the quarter-final thrashing of defending champions Inter Milan.
"A younger, perhaps a little bit more inexperienced team will be going up against a very experienced team," said Rangnick.
Raul provides fear factor
Raul has scored five times for Schalke in the Champions League
The average age of Schalke’s starting line-up is in fact two years younger than Manchester United, but also features internationally experienced Spanish star striker Raul. He is highly respected by his opponents and has prompted United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to warn his defense of the striker's intuitive instinct in front of goal.
Even so, Rangnick knows who the favorite is in this duel. "We are surely the team with much less to lose in these two games than Manchester," said the Schalke coach, who urged seriousness amongst his players but also encouraged them to enjoy their match in Europe's top flight.
Perhaps they should, because Schalke's position in the Bundesliga this season won't earn them another Champions League qualification next year. Their only chance for consecutive berths amongst Europe's elite is to win the tournament this year. That's why Rangnick's goal is clear: "To do everything possible to be in the final."
Author: Joscha Weber / cn
Editor: Rob Turner