The football world will be watching when Spanish heavyweights Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona meet in what promises to be a mouthwatering UEFA Champions League semi-final on Wednesday. Before that tonight, Manchester United FC will attempt to end their German jinx against underdogs FC Schalke 04 in Gelsenkirchen.
Real Madrid, who booked their place in the first semi-final with a 5-0 aggregate victory over Tottenham Hotspur FC, have beaten Barcelona in two previous European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finals. The precedent for their 3-1 aggregate success in 2002 came when Ferenc Puskás helped fire Madrid into the 1960 final during a 6-2 aggregate triumph. The hope for coach José Mourinho is that this current Madrid incarnation has a genuine "taste and feel" for UEFA Champions League glory, as they chase a tenth European crown.
In more recent times, it is Spanish champions Barcelona who have held any psychological edge between the rivals: their winning streak over the capital club reached a fifth match when they stunned Mourinho's men 5-0 at the Camp Nou in November. Even the 1-1 Santiago Bernabéu draw between the teams on 16 April all but confirmed Barcelona's third straight Liga title.
Yet could the spell finally have been broken when Madrid overcame the Azulgrana in Wednesday's Copa del Rey final thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's extra-time header?
Former Madrid striker Raúl González, meanwhile, will be a key feature in the second semi-final first leg. The 33-year-old has scored four goals in three games against Manchester United, and five in Schalke's groundbreaking UEFA Champions League campaign. No less significant, perhaps, is the greater freedom which Ralf Rangnick, who replaced Felix Magath as coach in March, has given to Schalke's play.
Can the studious tactician mastermind the Royal Blues' first European conquest since 1997 when they outlasted FC Internazionale Milano – whom they saw off 7-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals – on penalties to lift the UEFA Cup?
Opponents United may be favourites but they have struggled against German sides in the past. Since crashing out to Borussia Dortmund in 1997, Sir Alex Ferguson has not triumphed over two UEFA Champions League legs against a Bundesliga team. Although the Red Devils famously prevailed over FC Bayern München in 1999, the Bavarians avenged that final defeat with a 3-1 aggregate scalp in the 2001 quarter-finals as well as last term's away-goals win, also in the last eight.
Whether United will get the chance to make amends for their 2009 final reverse against Barcelona remains to be seen, yet one certainty is that Spain will be well represented at Wembley Stadium on Saturday 28 May.
Who, then, do you think will reach the final and why? Please post your comments below.
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