For Wayne Rooney, this evening brings a re-acquaintance with the away dressing room he tried in vain to enter five years ago, when he wanted to challenge Cristiano Ronaldo about the way he helped get him dismissed in the course of England's World Cup exit. Schalke's manager, Ralf Rangnick, insisted yesterday that the memory of that night here would only enter Rooney's head if British journalists put it there but Manchester United's striker won't have forgotten.
Rooney need not enter the place with too much foreboding, though. The acrid smell of sulphur which was hanging on the evening breeze last night and the hulking form of the distant Veba power plant offered reminders that Schalke is a club full of industry but the overwhelming mood here in the Ruhr is one of astonishment that a side who have laboured in the Bundesliga all season should stand on the uplands of Europe's elite tournament.
That they should do so has much to do, of course, with the hiring of Raúl González, whose 71 Champions League goals make him the tournament's all-time top scorer and whom Sir Alex Ferguson might have signed last summer had not Michael Owen been in position at Old Trafford already. Raúl engenders the sense of ilusión (enthusiasm, hope), and speaks of the presió* mediática – media pressure on the club – though that oversimplifies the course of a traumatic season which has compounded this club's reputation for internal conflict.
A victim of the most recent strife was Felix Magath, the coach who was dismissed because his players came to detest him. Rangnick's arrival and a five-week honeymoon spell, which included the extraordinary 7-3 aggregate quarter-final win over Internazionale, has rather masked the underlying sense that Schalke are a club in transition.
Rangnick – known in Germany as "The Professor" – declared last night that the relative youth of his players could prove decisive. "There is a difference [between the sides]," he said, "and it is maybe one that makes it more exciting for our team. We have an inexperienced team and a lot of these players are in this situation for the first time – apart from Raúl, who might be in this situation for the last time – we have to show what we can achieve with enthusiasm and passion."
Cut that argument the other way though and you can conclude that this side is a few years away from the standard of Bayer Leverkusen, who in their prime marched past United to a final against Real Madrid, nine years ago.
Rangnick believes the atmosphere created by a 54,000 sell-out crowd will be key tonight. "In England you don't have a situation where they whistle like here in Germany, which is a sign of booing," he said.Reuse content