“Football is a simple game – 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win” – Gary Lineker
FC Shalke 04 awaits Ferguson’s red army in the semi-finals of the biggest prize in European football – The UEFA Champions League. The ‘Royal Blues’ might be viewed as underdogs but Man United would do well not to underestimate their opponent’s pedigree especially as they hail from the Deutschland. Over the years Fergie’s Red Devils have come across a variety of German opposition in Europe, some duels have ended in iconic triumphs while others in heart breaking defeats. The name of Germany’s Bayern Munich would remain ever etched in United folklore for time immemorial – Sir Alex’s finest hour in a career glittering with so much silverware that it might dazzle even a blind man from the lustre.
However, one must remember the Germans have caused heartache to United’s fans by derailing the Red’s charge on more than one occasion in Europe’s premier club competition. This time too, the much less fancied FC Shalke would have similar intensions of halting the Red Bus before the final frontier.
Ralf Rangnick’s Shalke side are no pushovers, although they might not have set the Bundesliga alight, their performances in this year’s European Cup have been simply breathtaking. The night in Milan where they dismantled the reigning European champions by completely annihilating Leonardo’s men in their own backyard should have made the doubters eat humble pie. FC Shalke are here not by accident, not here just to make up the numbers and certainly not here to roll over for their much fancied opposition. Sir Alex would know his United side would have to play up to their potential against a German side who wouldn’t ever give up and would never give an inch.
Favourites United have crashed out against German also-rans in this competition too often for it to be a coincidence, ergo the German hoodoo needs to be ended right now. Let’s hark back to United’s German jinx in Champions League.
Manchester United v Borussia Dortmund: Semi Finals UEFA Champions League 1997
Ferguson’s United side had finally reached the penultimate stage of the illustrious European Cup, after repeated failures in seasons gone by. The squad had finally matured and looked to be peaking at the right moment, the 4-0 thrashing of European powerhouse FC Porto in the previous round suggested the long wait for European success would be over soon. However, United were dealt a bitter blow with inspirational keeper Peter Schemichel failing a fitness test minutes before kick-off. Raimond Van der Gouw was called into action for the biggest match of his career, albeit rather worryingly his fourth ever in the red of United.
Eric Cantona – United’s talisman – was in the thick of the action early on as he slipped a beautiful through pass to young Nicky Butt, who managed to beat the keeper but not the post. David Beckham also had a guilt edged chance to put United into the lead; however, his goal bound shot was brilliantly blocked. Ferguson’s men battled hard to maintain parity, however with an hour and a quarter of the game gone, Rene Tretschok shook the red half of Manchester with a long range short that deflected off Gary Pallister and went in -Van der Gouw never stood a chance.
United were beaten 1-0, still the soon to be crowned English Champions would have fancied themselves at the Theatre of Dreams. The fairy tale turned into a nightmare early on as German midfielder Lars Ricken doubled Dortmund’s advantage.
With the added cushion of an away goal, Dortmund brought out the bus and parked it in front of their goal. But United only had themselves to blame as despite creating a plethora of goal scoring opportunities, Cantona, Pallister, Cole, Giggs all contrived to miss them. German efficiency reigned supreme as Fergie’s wait continued for the elusive European crown. Till this date, the defeat to Dortmund remains one of the most painful nights of Ferguson’s glorious career. The king – Eric Cantona – never played another European game for Manchester United – how he wishes he could have waited a couple of years more.
Manchester United vs Bayern Munich: Quarter Final UEFA Champions League 2001
Bayern Munich and Manchester United were face to face yet again, albeit the stakes were relatively lower this time around than their previous meeting. The first leg at Old Trafford was won by a solitary Bayern goal scored by substitute Paulo Sergio at the death, a goal that handed the initiative to the Germans.
Back in Germany for the second leg, United’s misery was compounded by Elber as early as in the 5th minute – United were shell shocked. Scholl tripled Bayern’s lead to put any hopes of a famous United comeback to bed. Giggs grabbed a consolation goal for Man United but it was too little too late as the Germans lay the ghost of ’99 and went on all the way to capture a European crown of their own. Captain Roy Keane demanded an inquiry into United’s continued failure at the biggest stage in European football; the team needed new blood and renewed vigour to reclaim the summit once again. Fergie answered his call with the marquee signings of Rudd and Veron.
Manchester United vs Bayer Leverkusen: Semi Final UEFA Champions League 2002
The European Cup was finally won in the year 1999 that capped off an amazing treble for the Red Devils. However, continued European glory remained Ferguson and United’s main motivation. High flying Deportivo La Coruna were dispatched with ease after a brilliant performance away in sunny Spain. The high profile signing of Argentine midfield maestro Juan Sebastian Veron bought in the summer to especially conquer Europe was now beginning to look like a master-stroke. Along with Real Madrid, the team from Old Trafford looked the best bet for European glory. However, the relatively unknown side from Deutschland had other ideas.
The first leg at Old Trafford started with a bang, well almost literally as Gary Neville was stretchered off and his season ended in despair. United however soon took the lead, with Solskjaer’s deflected shot ending up in the German net. The celebrations were short lived as Bayern hit back and with deadly effect – Michael Ballack had equalized and silenced the hitherto jubilant Old Trafford crowd. After a Rudd Van Nistelrooy penalty, United lead the Germans once again. The much talked about German grit, determination and the ability to never accept defeat was once again in display as substitute Oliver Neuville equalized to send Old Trafford in a state of mini coma. As things stood, United needed to score in Germany which they did but only for Leverkusen to hit right back. 3-3 the aggregate but United went out on away goals. It was yet another heart-break in Germany, as United continued to flounder in Europe despite all the dominance on the home front.
Manchester United vs Bayern Munich: Quarter Final UEFA Champions League 2010
Riding on the back of an amazing season from Cristiano Ronaldo, Man United won their 3rd European crown in year ’08 . With another Finals appearance in the bag in the next campaign, it seemed Ferguson had finally cracked the continental code. By now the Portuguese had left for the glamour of Real Madrid and Spain, United hadn’t spent big but still remained a force to reckon with. Old nemesis Bayern Munich were drawn from the bag, and Ferguson seemed confident as Wayne Rooney just couldn’t stop scoring.
AC Milan were completely torn to shreds by the Old Trafford outfit in the previous round and as United took the lead at the Allianz Arena in the first leg via the insurmountable Rooney, it all seemed a bit too easy for the men from Manchester. However, Franck Ribéry equalized for FC Hollywood and in the dying embers of the first tie Olic put the German side into the lead as Patrice Evra dozed off in his own box. More worryingly for United, Wayne Rooney limped off and was almost surely ruled out of the second leg.
Rooney, however, started as United went on a rampage – the first half performance was one of the best displays of attacking football witnessed at the Theatre of Dreams. The much maligned Darren Gibson put United ahead doing what he does best i.e. shoot. The mercurial Portuguese winger Luis Nani was having a mid season renaissance and produced a scintillating performance capped off by a brilliant brace. United were 3-0 ahead on the night, the tie seemed a formality now. However, just before the break Olic returned to haunt United once again scoring right at the end of the first half to keep Munich in with a chance.
The unthinkable happened in the second half as long-time United target Arjen Robben pulled off an amazing piece of skill that levelled the aggregate score; all this happened after United felt they were done in by harsh refereeing with young Rafael’s dismissal. Ten men United soldiered on but couldn’t break down the resolute German rear guard. Bayern displayed once again that belief could take you places where even brilliance fears to tread.
Now here we are once again on the cusp of yet another battle between England and Germany- Fergie’s United side and Ralf Rangnick’s flawed but brilliant Shalke outfit. Would Raul return to haunt United once again as he did ages ago with his former club Real Madrid or will Ferguson finally slay his German ghost? El Classico might be the flavour of Europe in weeks to come but be rest assured this British-German encounter will surely wet every one’s appetite. For United and their fans, the thought of being branded odds on favourites must put extra pressure, it’s a double edged sword, which is comforting yet unnerving.