This has been a roller-coaster season for FC Schalke 04 on and off the pitch. No fewer than 17 new faces have arrived at the Arena AufSchalke since July and change has come in the dugout too, with Felix Magath making way for Ralf Rangnick in March following disappointing league results and a difference of opinion with club management. But while their Bundesliga form has been inconsistent, the Royal Blues have excelled in the UEFA Champions League, reaching the semi-finals for the first time.
Since a 1-0 defeat by Olympique Lyonnais on Matchday 1, Schalke have remained unbeaten in Europe's premier club competition, winning Group B, ousting Valencia CF in the round of 16 and comprehensively eliminating holders FC Internazionale Milano with a scintillating 7-3 aggregate success in the quarter-finals.
The 5-2 first-leg victory over the Nerazzurri at San Siro will be remembered as one of the Knappen's (Miners) greatest triumphs. Indeed, it seems Schalke have clicked particularly well under Rangnick, who has been impressed by his players, saying: "It is amazing that they're already performing how I want them to after so few training sessions. There are no troublemakers in this team; they have a real team spirit."
UEFA club competition honours (runners-up in brackets)
• UEFA Cup: 1997
• UEFA Intertoto Cup: 2003, 2004
Domestic honours (most recent triumph in brackets)
• German title: 7 (1958)
• German Cup: 4 (2002)
Previous European Champion Clubs' Cup semi-finals
UEFA club ranking
28 (opponents Manchester United FC are 1st)
Bundesliga: Raúl González 12
UEFA Champions League: Raúl González 5
Strengths and weaknesses
While summer arrival Raúl has grabbed the headlines, Schalke's greatest strength is at the back, where they conceded just three goals during the group stage. They are also very strong in the air, testimony to Magath's preference for tall, athletic players. The Royal Blues' biggest weakness is inexperience at this level and, with the exception of their San Siro stroll, they have struggled to create chances against opponents who sit back. In the Bundesliga, only three teams have scored fewer goals – but, of course, at this late stage in the UEFA Champions League, the onus will not be on Schalke to make all the running.
The 3-0 home win against Lyon. After losing 1-0 to the Ligue 1 side and barely carving out an opportunity in their Group B opener, Schalke had the critics convinced they were too weak to survive at this level. Opinions were promptly revised when the same opposition were handed a comprehensive defeat on Matchday 5. This eye-catching result against perennial European competitors also cemented top spot in the section for Schalke, who therefore avoided meeting Real Madrid CF in the last 16.
If Schalke's defence has been their forte, the rock of that rearguard has been hugely influential. Centre-back Benedikt Höwedes, a UEFA European Under-21 Championship winner in 2009, has featured in nine of Schalke's ten matches, showing a maturity beyond his years when pitted against Europe's most dangerous marksmen. In addition, Höwedes boasts a valuable eye for goal: the 23-year-old registered in the 2-1 victory at SL Benfica, while his second-leg decider against Inter typified his contribution to the team. After winning a tackle in midfield, he charged upfield, raced onto Raúl's clever lob and rifled in with all the assurance of a seasoned striker.
League position: 10 (Last five games: WLWWD)
Schalke's form is steadily improving, with pundits noting that the squad Magath built is flourishing now the shackles have been removed by Rangnick. The 52-year-old is enjoying his second stint with the Gelsenkirchen outfit and has largely kept the same framework as Magath, while making a few tactical alterations, such as turning Edu from winger to central striker and bringing gifted midfielder Alexander Baumjohann back from the reserves. Under Rangnick, Schalke are undefeated and have won four of their last five Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League matches, outscoring the opposition 11-4. They also have a German Cup final looming, against second division MSV Duisburg on 21 May, and could yet clinch a UEFA Europa League spot via a strong league finish.
Rául is this competition's all-time top scorer with 71 goals, but despite having won the tournament three times, this will be his first semi-final in eight years. Manchester United FC will rightly fear the 33-year-old as he netted twice in their UEFA Champions League quarter-final defeat by Madrid in 2003 and also notched a double at Old Trafford in April 2000, when the Merengues ended United's reign as holders.
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