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The last time Gelsenkirchen hosted such an important UEFA Champions League match, Manuel Neuer was a wide-eyed ball boy soaking up the atmosphere as FC Porto triumphed over AS Monaco FC in the 2004 final.
The Germany No1 will take centre stage on Tuesday, however, when FC Schalke 04 entertain Manchester United FC in the first leg of their semi-final tie.
So much has happened to Neuer in the last seven years, it would be understandable if the 25-year-old struggled to recall the details of Porto's big night in the Ruhr region, but the experience remain etched in his mind. "I was standing right on the pitch," Neuer told UEFA.com. "Back then it was a dream for me to be able to be at that match. Now it's a dream for me to be playing in the semi-finals."
Inspiring your hometown club to a place in the last four for the first time is indeed the stuff of fairy tales. Yet there was nothing tender about the ruthless manner in which Schalke eliminated holders FC Internazionale Milano in the quarter-finals, winning 5-2 away before securing a 2-1 home victory.
"It was certainly surprising, especially after we fell behind after only 20 seconds and then later went 2-1 down," reflected Neuer, who debuted in 2006 and has made more than 150 league appearances for Schalke. "Nobody thought we could score five at San Siro. Our fans had faith in us but I don't think they believed we'd go through in the way we did."
Despite their heroics in Milan, Ralf Rangnick's charges are still seen by most as outsiders in a formidable semi-final lineup. Neuer, however, is not worried about their underdog status – "we enjoyed playing that role against Inter" – and is relishing the opportunity to measure himself against the likes of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández.
"I have respect for those players but I'm not afraid of them," said the international, capped 20 times by Germany. "I've already played against Rooney once, in the [2010 FIFA] World Cup [round of 16], and it ended positively for Germany. I hope it'll be similar against Manchester United."
Neuer is nevertheless wary of the three-time European champions. He feels collective strength, rather than individual flair, is the English club's biggest weapon. "They have many good players," he explained. "There is the experience of Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar. I was a big fan of Van der Sar when I was growing up, but you can't just pick out one player. The team is the star at Manchester United. I have to say I really like the way they play."
While United bank on the experience of Giggs and Van der Sar, the Bundesliga outfit will turn to their own iconic figure. Raúl González has rolled back the years this season and, according to Neuer, the predatory striker has been an inspiration in their European campaign.
"He has so much experience and he's very important for us in these games," he said of the 33-year-old Spaniard. "
Raúl has great statistics in the Champions League. He scores a goal every two games – so he'll definitely score against Manchester United."
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