For soccer fans, the end of April can be a melancholy time. Domestic leagues around Europe are winding down, and the transfer window doesn’t open until July 1. But, one thing that makes the end of April exciting is the culmination of the season long UEFA Champions League.
This year’s Champions League semifinals should offer some exciting soccer. Three of the most well-known soccer clubs in the world are in the final 4, and there is a Cinderella team for all those fans who like cheering for the underdog. What more could you ask for? As an Arsenal fan, I suppose I could have asked for the Gunners to make it to the semis, but I’m just excited at the prospect of some good soccer.
The first match (April 26th at 2:45pm Eastern), will see this season’s surprise team, FC Schalke 04, take on one of the preeminent sides in Europe, Manchester United. While this match may not have the flash of the other semifinal, expect some good soccer. It pits a side that has hit its scoring stride (Schalke outscored Inter Milan 7-3 on aggregate in their quarterfinal meeting) against a side that has conceded just three goals in 10 Champions league games!
Schalke have been a classic example of a Jekyll and Hyde side this season. Prior to sacking Felix Magath in March, die Königsblauen (the Royal Blues) were struggling in the Bundesliga and still sit just 10th. While their domestic form left something to be desired, Schalke was simultaneously turning in strong performances in both the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) and the Champions League. Since Ralf Rangnick‘s appointment it seems the German side has found some joy on the pitch. Under Rangnick, who spent a spell as manager with Schalke in 2004-2005, Schalke have parlayed their form in cup competitions into better form in the Bundesliga (2 wins and a draw away to Werder Bremen).
While the team, as a whole, has underperformed, Raúl seems to have found the Fountain of Youth in Gelsenkirchen. The Spaniard, a legend for Real Madrid, has scored 18 goals and assisted on 6 more in all competitions for Schalke this season. Playing sidekick to Raúl, the Royal Blues boast Peruvian playmaker, Jefferson Farfán and Dutch forward, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Farfán has been a creative force throughout the Champions League and has tallied 4 goals in the competition (10 goals, 8 assists overall). Huntelaar, hampered by injuries of late, he hasn’t played since the end of February, but could be back for the clash with the Red Devils. His presence on the field (10 goals in all competitions) would certainly boost the Germans’ hopes.
On the other side of the pitch, Manchester United again find themselves the last English team standing. The Red Devils will be looking to make it to their 3rd final in the last four seasons (winning in 2008 against Chelsea, and losing in 2009 to Barcelona). The beginning of the season saw many pundits writing of Manchester United’s demise - the team was too old, Wayne Rooney had lost his form, the big money teams of Chelsea and Manchester City had bought too much talent. It turns out rumors of their demise were greatly exaggerated. Man U has lost just 3 games in the Premier League this season, and hasn’t lost in the Champions League.
Like Raúl, Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar seem to have found the Fountain of Youth in Northwest England. Both evergreens are having excellent seasons. Giggs has 3 goals and 10 assists in 34 appearances this season, while van der Sar has 13 clean sheets in league play and 7 in the Champions League. The Red Devils aren’t just getting contributions from their veterans. Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández has been a revelation this season, scoring 11 times in the EPL and another 4 in the Champions League. Nani has developed into one of the best wingers in the world (9 goals and 14 assists in the EPL this season), and Wayne Rooney has seem to have refound his form since his amazing bicycle kick goal.
This matchup would seem to favor Manchester United, but Man U does not have the best of luck with German teams in the Champions League. Check out this post on the Red Devils’ history against Bundesliga teams. While past results are not indicative of future performance, you have to wonder if Schalke will find some magic. With the first game taking place at Veltins-Arena, the Royal Blues will have every chance to take a lead heading into the 2nd leg.
Prediction: Manchester United advance, but don’t win as convincingly as most EPL fans might expect. I see a draw or even a loss for the Red Devils in Germany, followed by a victory at Old Trafford.
Agree? Disagree? Think I’m crazy? Leave a comment, and come back tomorrow for a preview of the second Champions League match – Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.