Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández may have a tough time getting past Schalke's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer
Manuel Neuer, Schalke's 25-year-old goalkeeper, is often rated the world's best – at least he is in Germany. But look up his incredible performance against FC Porto in a 2008 Champions League last‑16 tie on YouTube and there is actually a pretty good case to be made. His performance, often reproduced in league and Europe, was scarcely believable that night. Neuer kept out a header from two yards, then won the tie by saving two penalties. The best way to avoid a similar fate would be for Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández to avoid what Germans call warmschiessen, the inadvertent, goalkeeper-confidence-building measure of shooting from too far, too often and too imprecisely. Better to concentrate on one-yard tap-ins instead.
Jefferson Farfán has spent much of the season agitating for a move but the departure of the previous manager Felix Magath has rekindled the Peruvian international's loyalty. The 26-year-old has given full-backs a hellish time with his powerful probing down the right touchline, where he is more often than not ably supported by the Japanese full-back Atsuto Uchida, another tireless sprinter who has – almost uniquely among the Schalke back-four – a fine sense of defensive positioning as well.
Schalke's card-carrying Anglophile manager, Ralf Rangnick, once spent a year in Brighton to improve his English. "I knew I had to live there for a while if I wanted to be able to read 800 pages of Charles Dickens's Hard Times one day," he said. The 52-year-old is essentially a self-taught football auteur in the José Mourinho mould but with slightly less ego and a bigger sense of mission: Rangnick has felt under-appreciated by the Bundesliga establishment in the past and is desperate to prove his credentials on the biggest stage. His players will have been inundated with Dickens-sized dossiers on the opposition.
Fifty-three years without winning the championship have turned the Schalke crowd into a pretty forgiving bunch: Neuer was greeted with polite applause last Saturday after revealing on Facebook he would not renew his contract. The atmosphere at the Veltins-Arena (the tie was sold out in just 150 minutes) will be electric against United. Ever since they won the Uefa Cup in 1997, the locals love nothing more than taking on bigger, more aristocratic teams. Gelsenkirchen is in fact a city so mad about all things blue that even Intertoto Cup games and Biathlon events have seen capacity crowds of 60,000 in the past.
Raúl. Heard of him? You can expect this 33-year-old striker to linger in the left‑sided no-man's land between Michael Carrick and John O'Shea for a large part of proceedings and to come alive in one or two crucial moments of the match. There's even a suggestion the Spaniard has a knack of scoring the odd goal at this level, which could come in very handy indeed.