When Ralf Rangnick said his second spell as coach of FC Schalke 04 "couldn't have started any better", he was not exaggerating.
Four wins in his first four games – including a 5-2 away win and a 2-1 home success to eliminate holders FC Internazionale Milano from the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals – saw Rangnick dazzle on his return to the club he first coached in 2004/05, with a semi-final meeting against Manchester United FC next up.
Schalke hit the heights in Europe under Rangnick's predecessor Felix Magath, but sagged in the Bundesliga. However, the early signs point to a more consistent Schalke in future, not least that huge win in Milan. "We played very aggressively against Inter," remembered Rangnick. "It could have ended 6-6 or 10-7, but we were rewarded for our courage".
The return fixture showed the Gelsenkirchen side were capable of maturity as well as adventure, sitting back and calmly squeezing the life out of Leonardo's European champions. "I think we saw two different matches," he said. "We didn't give them a lot of chances, and it was very nice that we managed to win the second match deservedly too."
Rangnick left TSG 1899 Hoffenheim on 1 January, and now faces perhaps the biggest tie of his career against United. "It is a similar position to the one we were in against Inter," he said. "We are the clear underdogs in this tie too. Everybody expects Manchester United to win easily."
That situation will suit the Royal Blues well enough, but Rangnick knows the Premier League leaders are a class act. "They have several players aged 29-33, so experience clearly speaks in favour of Manchester United," he said. "In attack they have players like [Wayne] Rooney and [Javier] Hernández, with [Dimitar] Berbatov on the bench. That shows their great attacking qualities."
Sir Alex Ferguson's presence continues to inspire United, and Rangnick too is a fan of the 69-year-old Scotsman. "He is the complete boss," he said. "You can only take your hat off to the 30 years he has coached and reigned over that club. The fact he still feels that fire and desire to lead the team to titles is extraordinary."
The former VfB Stuttgart and Hannover 96 coach, who once played for amateur side Southwick FC while studying in England, can hardly wait for his meeting with Sir Alex, describing him as "an absolute icon". He added: "I'm looking forward to facing him and meeting him personally before or after the match." Schalke hope it will be an occasion the United boss would prefer to forget.
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