The traditionally elongated cry of “Wem-ber-ley” rang around Old Trafford as Chelsea were disposed of on Tuesday night.
The crowd could have been singing about Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final in the capital but, with the Champions League final to take place in London too this season, it was impossible not to take the chant as a sign of the fans’ confidence about reaching the fifth European final of the Ferguson era.
Perhaps their hubris was understandable. Lying between United and a meeting with either Real Madrid or Barcelona on 28th May are Schalke, impressive conquerors of Internazionale but currently only ninth in the Bundesliga. It would be foolish to deny that a tie with the German side is a less daunting obstacle than a test against either of La Liga’s top two. Even so, it would be equally ill-advised not to express a note of caution about the nature of United’s next opposition before fans make plans to remortgage their homes so as to afford a final ticket.
In nine previous knockout games against German sides in the Champions League, United have lost five times, drawn a couple, and won only twice. Both of those victories have come against Bayern Munich. One was in the 1999 final – a match that so easily could have gone the other way, lest we forget – and the other came in last season’s quarter-final second leg at Old Trafford. United won 3-2 on the night but were eliminated on away goals, the same rule that Ferguson’s side fell foul of in 2002 when pitted against Bayer Leverkusen.
The semi-final against Leverkusen nine years ago was a particularly galling experience because United were ahead on three separate occasions but let Klaus Toppmöller’s side back into the contest each time. A 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in the first leg – with a young Dimitar Berbatov leading the line for the away side – saw goals from Michael Ballack and later Oliver Neuville peg back the advantage United temporarily gained through an own goal by Boris Zivkovic and then Ruud van Nistelrooy’s penalty. Neuville scored again in Germany to cancel out Roy Keane’s opener and leave the tie all square at 3-3, with Leverkusen advancing thanks to their two goals in Manchester.
Along with that frustrating night in Leverkusen, United have played three other Champions League knockout games in Germany – and lost them all. A late goal from René Tretschok gave Borussia Dortmund a 1-0 victory in United’s 1997 semi-final first leg against the then German champions, who went on to beat Juventus in the final. In 2001, United travelled to Munich for the second leg of a quarter-final against Bayern. The home side won more comfortably than the 2-1 scoreline suggested. The painful turnaround in last season’s match in Bavaria at the same stage of the competition is fresh enough in the memory to not need reiterating.
All this dredging up of the past is not meant to shatter fans’ hopes of a Wembley win. As impressive as Schalke were in beating Inter both home and away, perhaps it wasn’t quite such a surprise that they advanced given the serial Italian champions’ fall from grace this season and the fact that the Bundesliga has moved above Serie A in Uefa’s coefficients table. A victory in Germany, though so far elusive in previous knockout stages of the Champions League, looks much more likely this season, with United not only being unbeaten away from home in Europe so far but yet to concede a goal.
At home, of course, United have been nothing less than formidable this campaign and, with that in mind, it is encouraging to see that the second leg against Schalke will be at Old Trafford and the first game in Gelsenkirchen on 26th April.
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