Champions League Semifinal Preview:
Just over a year ago, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson waited impatiently on the Old Trafford touchline as his team battled against German Bundesliga heavyweight Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals. It was the second leg of the tie, and Manchester United were nursing a 4-3 lead on aggregate, after falling 2-1 in the first leg at the Allianz Arena in Munich. Ferguson had reason to be nervous (although I’m not sure if he ever is..). After falling behind 3-0, Bayern had grabbed a goal back through striker Ivica Olic, and needed just one more to see them through to the Final.
Then, in the 74th minute, United conceded a corner kick. Franck Ribery floated in a cross to the edge of the penalty area, allowing the incomparable Dutch winger Arjen Robben to take hold and, in a stroke of unparalleled genius, curl a sublime left-footed volley past United keeper and fellow countryman Edwin van der Sar. That golazo would prove the decisive goal, as Bayern would advance on the strength of two away goals despite losing 3-2 at Old Trafford (the final aggregate was 4-4).
German teams have long provided a thorn in Sir Alex’s otherwise near-impeccable career. Despite United’s incredible fightback in the 1999 Champions League final, which saw them defeat the same Bayern Munich, they have a history of falling to teams from the Rhineland.
In 1997, Borussia Dortmund (currently leading the Bundesliga) knocked out the Red Devils in the UCL semis. In 2001, Bayern grabbed revenge for their heartbreak two years earlier, beating United in the quarterfinals. One year later, it was Bayer Leverkusen (Michael Ballack’s former club), dispatching United in the semi-finals on their way to winning the 2002 title.
This year, United face off against Schalke 04, who, despite a middling league campaign, rampaged their way through their quarterfinal tie against holders Inter Milan, advancing on 7-3 aggregate. Though United are considered heavy favorites, Schalke possess talismanic Spanish striker Raul, who has been in fine goal-scoring form of late, and has netted an incredible 71 goals in 140 European games, including five this year.
2011 could be a historic year for Manchester. They are the odds-on favorite to capture their 19th Premier League title, with a six point lead on second-place Chelsea. If they go on to take the Champions League title, it will be their fourth in history, tying them with Ajax and…Bayern Munich.
Kickoff is 11:45 PST at the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.