Early Doors

Raul still a real threat

Early Doors

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"England is the motherland of football of course. But they have still not learned about penalties.

"In Wayne Rooney we have the eternal favourite son-in-law for English mothers and that evergreen youngster Edwin van der Sar, who takes goalkeeping tips from Jens Lehmann. And then there is Malcolm Glazer, who for Manchester United fans is the equivalent of Lord Voldemort."

Sadly, these are not the words of Schalke manager Ralf Rangnick ahead of tonight's Champions League clash against Manchester United, but a 'satirical' column in the matchday programme ahead of the semi-final first leg in Gelsenkirchen, which then goes on to profile the average United fan: "The typical Manc man is called Paul. He has darts in his right pocket and in his left pocket has a picture of a bulldog... And can you believe they put vinegar on their chips?"

Them there's fightin' words, boys.

Still, they can perhaps afford to be bullish ahead of this tie, as Germany has not been a happy stomping ground for United over the past couple of decades. While they may have beat Bayern Munich in THAT final in Barcelona in 1999, they have failed to win a two-legged tie against German opposition in three attempts in the Champions League era.

The Veltins-Arena, meanwhile, is quite literally not a happy stomping ground for Wayne Rooney, who was sent off there in the 2006 World Cup for trying a spot of ad hoc neutering on Ricardo Carvalho with the sole of his left boot.

Despite being heavy favourites to reach a third final in four years against a mid-table Bundesliga side, United boss Alex Ferguson admitted "you always gets apprehensive at this stage of the competition" as he tries to close the gap on the most successful sides in European Cup history.

He said: "This is where we should be.

"The expectation has always been high with regard to the European scene and you do get envious of other clubs' great record in Europe.

"We are trying to gain parity with that. You look at Real Madrid (nine wins-three runners-up), AC Milan (7-4), Bayern Munich (4-4), Ajax (4-2) and Liverpool (5-2)."

Reference to Liverpool's superior record must have been made through gritted teeth, though the inclusion of the Anfield club's name on that illustrious list would have been made a great deal easier by his own club being just weeks away from overtaking their record haul of league titles.

The steady erosion of their domestic rival's bragging rights may be the most enduring achievement of Ferguson's reign, but it is the nights of European glory which have provided the biggest highlights for him. As such, he will not be able to resist looking on in admiration as his defence lines up against a striker who has won as many European Cups in his career as United have in their entire history.

Raul is a player whom many have always struggled to like. The sporadic observer was often been left baffled as to how he was the main man at Real Madrid for well over a decade when he never seemed to justify their lofty reputation while they were watching - an art later perfected by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The only Spanish member of Florentino Perez's original Galacticos, as Real club captain his place in the team was assured and influence behind the scenes extensive, to the point where many felt his presence was detrimental to the team's progress.

As his goal return began to wane significantly in the middle part of the last decade, a succession of managers were forced to juggle the loftiest of expectations and a squad brimming with talent with the need to find a way of still accommodating the number seven and still be expected to win every trophy going. Truly, he was a company man, and if you didn't love Real then it was hard to love Raul.

However, this season he has earned a fresh wave of respect across Europe since his decision to move to Schalke. More lucrative moves to Italy, England, USA or the Middle East were all possibilities, but instead he chose a switch to the faded giants of the Ruhr valley.

'Schadenfreude' may not have entered the Spanish lexicon as it has the English one, but Raul would surely have discovered his meaning when his new club got off to a disastrous start. They recorded just one victory from their first 10 league games, with their new star man scoring just once in that time.

Since then, however, the form of both player and club was transformed, typified by their stunning 7-3 aggregate win over defending champions Internazionale to reach the last four, while Raul also scored as Schalke beat Bayern Munich en route to the German Cup final.

Raul's return of five goals in 10 European games this term - extending his record haul of 71 Champions League goals - is a much more fitting return for a man with three European Cup and six La Liga winner's medals in his collection. Although, perhaps, are more appropriate statistic for United is that, in three previous meetings against them, he has scored three times.

If Ferguson is to enhance United's place in Champions League history, he will have to overcome a huge part of it over the next week.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I've just been upstairs and nearly broken down in front of the supporters because I hold myself responsible for the relegation - end of story. You can say you came in too late or that the previous guy in charge was there too long, but I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't think I could keep the club in the Championship. So I hold myself responsible for the relegation." - Phil Brown takes the wrap after he was unable to stop Preston North End being the first club relegated from the Championship this season.

FOREIGN VIEW: "We clearly respect the identity, traditions, culture and history of the club and have no intention of changing any of these. We hope that all football fans in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates and the Middle East share this heritage and offer support. Our goal is to globalise the Getafe brand and create strong links between the two regions in which Getafe CF will be the perfect ambassador." - Royal Emirates Group director Kaiser Rafiq outlines his vision of making La Liga side Getafe a global brand. With the Coliseum Alfonso Perez currently the worst attended ground in Spain's top division - average attendance this season: 9,000; lowest crowd: 6,000 - they will have their work cut out competing with their Madrid neighbours.

CAMEO OF THE DAY: After Wayne Rooney joined Twitter over the weekend his Manchester United team-mate Darron Gibson thought he would get in on the act on Monday, only to withdraw his account two hours later following a torrent of abuse - most of which came from his own club's fans.

COMING UP: As well as live coverage of Schalke v Manchester United (19:45) this evening, you can also follow Stoke City v Wolverhampton Wanderers (19:45) in the Premier League. Highlights of last night's clash between Blackburn and Manchester City are now online. Worth checking out just to see Edin Dzeko's first goal in 624 minutes of Premier League football.

Our latest big manager interview for The Dugout is Gus Poyet, and we want your questions for the former Chelsea and Tottenham midfielder who has just taken Brighton up to the Championship.

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