FC Schalke 04 go into their UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg at Manchester United FC trailing 2-0 from the first leg, but Atsuto Uchida is undaunted by the challenge of playing at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. In an exclusive interview with UEFA.com the Japan international talks about Schalke's prospects in Manchester, life in Germany and what it is like to play alongside Raúl González.
Schalke recorded another disappointing result at the weekend, losing 4-1 against FC Bayern München, but if domestic results tell of a transitional season in the Bundesliga, the Royal Blues have blazed a trail in the UEFA Champions League. Though Schalke face an uphill task to reverse their first-leg defeat against United, the 7-3 aggregate victory over defending European club champions FC Internazionale Milano remains a key reference point for Uchida.
"We have not really been getting the results in the Bundesliga," admitted the 23-year-old. "It's not like we're cutting corners, we're really working hard to get results, but in the Champions League, our awareness and intent have been stronger. When we attacked against Inter we showed no hesitation, and we were able to attack quickly as a team. We believed in our own strengths."
Ralf Rangnick's men will attempt to rediscover this belief when they take on the Premier League leaders, who lost their own domestic encounter against Arsenal FC on Sunday. Until last week, Uchida had only seen Sir Alex Ferguson's men in action from afar, but now Old Trafford awaits in the last-four decider. "United have players you often see on television, and the pitch and the stadium are also wonderful. They're a great team, and they have a great coach but Schalke also have great fans, a great coach and great players, so we're going to give it our all. If we win we'll be in the Champions League final."
One Schalke player who certainly warrants the word "great" is Raúl González. The Spanish striker, who is the UEFA Champions League's leading all-time marksman with 71 goals, has struck five times in Europe since joining the Gelsenkirchen club at the same time as Uchida last summer, and the former Kashima Antlers FC full-back has nothing but praise for the 33-year-old.
"Raúl is simply a legend on a global scale. The way he plays, his results on the pitch; the way he is as a football player and a human being is something I really admire," says Uchida. "
He's a superstar, but he doesn't think about himself, he cares about the team as a whole. His football is the same – he works hard, and also in normal life he's someone who speaks up. He's just like everyone's older brother around here, and you can really count on him."
It has been a steep learning curve for Uchida, who cites FC Barcelona's Daniel Alves and Inter's Maicon as full-backs he holds in the highest esteem. The Japanese international has had to acclimatise to a new language, a new culture and a new team, while contending with the news of the fall-out from the earthquake and tsunami that struck his homeland in March, and left him feeling "powerless". Given the circumstances, so far Uchida appears to have taken everything in his stride.
"Germany has an atmosphere and environment that resembles Japan," he explained. "At times the people are serious and firm; they obey the rules, so in that respect it has been pretty easy to live here. A couple of years ago it was a pretty courageous thing to leave Japan and go to play in Europe, but recently a lot of Japanese players have started playing in European teams, so in that sense I just needed a little courage." As Uchida prepares for the biggest match of his career, he will be hoping that fortune favours the brave on Wednesday night.
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