Sir Alex Ferguson admitted last night that his "envy" of a continental elite who have captured far more European Cups than Manchester United is driving his desire to put a dismal record against German competition behind him and progress towards a fourth final tonight.
Ferguson has always felt an acute sense of the disparity between his own club, who have lifted the European Cup three times, and others, not least Liverpool, who have taken five, and knows that United's relatively modest haul in this tournament is a blemish on their history. He conveyed a sense last night that time to make good that deficit is running out on him as he declared that this current squad had the experience to lift the trophy at Wembley, 33 days from now.
"My expectation has always been high in regards to the European scene, but we do get envious of the records of other clubs in Europe," Ferguson said as he prepared his players to face Schalke, 7-3 victors over Internazionale in the quarter finals. "We look at other teams' records and we are trying to get parity with that. We look at clubs like Real Madrid, Milan, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool and we really need to progress quickly to get to that level."
Ferguson listed each of the clubs who United trail: Real Madrid, who face Barcelona in the other semi-final tomorrow, have lifted this trophy nine times, Milan seven, Liverpool five, Ajax and Bayern four each. Schalke represent the most beatable opposition he has faced in seven European Cup semi-finals and though Ferguson looked far more relaxed than before other semi-finals, he knows he faces a dreadful weight of history against Ralf Rangnick's 10th-placed Bundesliga side.
Ferguson has lost eight of the nine two-legged European ties he has faced against German opposition across the course of his Aberdeen and United career, with Aberdeen's Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final triumph in 1983 the only win. He has the 1999 triumph over Bayern Munich in Barcelona to reflect on, but the United manager acknowledged the dismal record and attributed it to Germans sharing his own will to win. "They have a self-determination, the German people, and I think it's reflected in how they approach all sports," he said. "There's a similarity with English people, though maybe more Scottish. We have that self-determination in Scotland." Self-determination – a nation's right to exercise its own sovereignty – is perhaps something Ferguson would want Scotland to have.
The sight of Wayne Rooney racing through training in high spirits last night suggested that the memory of his own dismissal at the Veltins Arena during England's 2006 World Cup exit to Portugal is in the past. Ferguson, who was coy when asked about United's tracking of Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, claimed improbably that he had no knowledge of the stadium's significance for Rooney.
"What happened? Was it [here]? Oh, OK. Well, you have to put bad moments behind you. It's normal for any footballer. I didn't know it was in Gelsenkirchen. I didn't actually watch that game." Ferguson reflected on the way Rooney had put personal problems in the past and returned to his best. "I think Wayne, more than anyone, realises that performances are the thing that he will always be judged on because there is an expectation of the boy. You see that he has stepped up to the mark for that – and proved himself entirely."
His midfielder Darron Gibson had more current preoccupations yesterday when he had to delete his new Twitter account after receiving abuse from fans who do not want him at the club.
Schalke, in their first Champions League semi-final, have won all five of their home games in this season's tournament, with the help of five goals from a resurgent Raul. "There is no way Manchester United are going to be led into believing that this is easy," said Ferguson.
"This is a difficult game for us and we are going to treat it that way. Hopefully we can come back with a result to get us through to the final. It's going to be a hard game."
Schalke v United: three key confrontations
Atsuto Uchida v Park Ji-sung
The Japanese international has settled well in his first season in Germany, and is a compact full-back with excellent technique who loves to get forward – he is Japan's youngest ever scorer. Uchida will test Park's famous defensive discipline on United's left flank. But he will have to match the athleticism and intelligence of the South Korean, who has become a big-match specialist at United in recent years, thanks to his diligence and game-changing goals.
Joel Matip v Ryan Giggs
Winning the midfield battle could prove decisive for Manchester United, if they are to reach their third Champions League final in the last four seasons. Ryan Giggs – star of both legs of the quarter-final triumph over Chelsea – will need to be at his best to stop Matip, 18 years his junior. The Cameroon international is the cousin of ex-Middlesbrough striker Joseph Desire Job and Scholes will have a tough night if he can't stop the 19-year-old dynamo.
Raul v Nemanja Vidic
At 33 Raul may be entering the later stages of his career, but with a record of 71 goals in 140 Champions League games, Manchester United and Vidic would be foolish to underestimate the former Real Madrid star. Raul, along with goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, is the only player to have taken part in all 10 of Schalke's Champions League fixtures this season. However, he will find it hard against the physicality of Vidic, who has been a colossus again this campaign.
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