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 wont have forgotten. He cried with rage at the "cheats" that night in the home dressing room England occupied, and has not seen the inside of the Veltins Arena since dragging himself away to the team bus.
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 sunlit 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), as he has recently described it, at a club which, with no great expectation tonight, is unfettered. Raúl also speaks of the presió* mediática – the positive atmosphere at 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 persuaded Raúl to leave Real Madrid for this unprepossessing town and took the Royal Blues to last month's Champions League quarter-final, but was dismissed because his players came to detest him. Some of them ran to club president, Clemens Tönnies, with complaints about Magath's dictatorial style, leading Tönnies to reveal that "inhuman dealings are not our way" and – appropriately enough for a entrepreneur who runs a butchery business – then sacked him. It is against this background that the club – indebted to the tune of £200m and baled out last year by a £25m loan from a publicly owned energy supplier – have had half an eye on the relegation zone all season.
Rangnick's arrival and a five-week honeymoon spell, which included the extraordinary 7-3 aggregate quarter- final win over Internazionale and an unbeaten record in the Bundesliga until Saturday's 1-0 home defeat to Kaiserslautern, has rather masked the underlying sense that Schalke are a club in transition. Ask anyone here who United should fear tonight and the names of Raúl, the pace of 26-year-old Peruvian striker Jefferson Farfan and the indomitability of the goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who last week chose Facebook to signal his intent to leave, will come up. But no one else. There is also a feeling that this defence, including the ex-Real Madrid defender Christoph Metzelder, is seriously vulnerable to pace. Expect Ferguson to deply Javier Hernandez to exploit this.
Rangnick, who will assess today whether Benedikt Höwedes, a 23-year-old traditional German stopper, has overcome an abdominal strain, 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. [They are] three or four years older than our team, but maybe the fact that we're a little bit inexperienced means that we're a really hungry team and have a real 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. Leverkusen, cast as the underdogs as Schalke are tonight, had Dimitar Berbatov, Lucio, Ze Roberto, Michael Ballack and Bernd Schneider all coming to fruition, but Rangnick's gifted individuals – such as teenage striker Julian Draxler – look further off.
An unknown commodity at this level is the intriguing – though, on the basis of yesterday's press conference, very grey – character of Rangnick. Schalke's 48-year-old manager has been known in Germany as "The Professor" since the days, as an up-and-coming manager at SSV Ulm in 1998, when he went on national TV with a whiteboard to introduce the German nation to the flat back four.
A reminder of that nickname rankled yesterday with Rangnick, who considers it demeaning, though he has established a reputation as one of the continent's most intelligent and technocratic young managers. Rangnick, an Anglophile during his year studying at Sussex University, worked as an intern at Arsenal and considers Arsène Wenger a major influence. After dismissal by Schalke in 2005 in another bout of blood-letting over money, he built a big reputation with the successive promotions which brought Hoffenheim from the third tier to the Bundesliga.
Some of his new-fangled training methods have built up that professorial tag – his Hoffenheim players were encouraged to shoot against specific areas of a large electronic wall and there were elaborate methods to get his players passing in triangles – but his achievements at Hoffenheim were aided by a wealthy benefactor, whose €157m (£138m) investment over ten years included a sizeable outlay on players.
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, though he won't get carried away. "The term 'moon landing' is an expression that's new to me," he said, when someone suggested that might be what this moment feels like. That perspective may change in the unlikely event of his side clearing tonight's obstacle.
Five things you may not know about Schalke
* Schalke's support is among the most vocal on the continent and is well-known for its songs, of which the most famous, Stand Up If You're Schalke, is sung to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys' song, Go West.
* As well as having supporters on Schalke's board of directors, fans traditionally celebrate with the players. After Schalke's victory over Internazionale in the last round, Raul (right) joined in the celebrations, singing arm-in-arm with supporters in the stands.
* The Veltins-Arena boasts a retractable roof, pitch and stand and it even has its own currency, the Knappe, an electronic chip card used to pay for everything from match tickets to beers.
* Pope John Paul II became an honorary member of the club in 1987 after celebrating a mass in their old stadium, the Parkstadion. Their new stadium houses a chapel, situated next to the team's dressing rooms.
n FC Schalke 04 is actually part of a larger 'sports club' with 90,000 members that include basketball, handball and athletic teams. MICHAEL BUTLER
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