If it were not for the tension of a Champions League semi-final, Manchester United might think of their exploits in days gone by and spare a smile of recognition for the opposition. Schalke have trusted in their own exuberance to get this far. While the holders, Internazionale, are scarcely what they were under the command of José Mourinho, their 7-3 rout on aggregate by the Bundesliga side was still uncanny. The victors have now scored 21 times in the tournament. United's total is a dozen.

Some of the Old Trafford veterans know what it was like to play with Schalke's gusto and they should cherish the memories, but at present their side have a different method for the European scene. While Sir Alex Ferguson's players can cut loose in the Premier League, piling up 71 goals so far, there is little commitment now to showing such verve in the Champions League.

The volatility of the gripping quarter‑final with Bayern Munich last year did, after all, see United eliminated on the away-goals rule following a 4-4 aggregate score. That volatile occasion had the tone of a flashback about it and the contemporary Old Trafford side have more often been intent on stern durability. It has helped them go far in the tournament during the past three seasons.

They won the trophy in 2008 and had it taken from them by Barcelona in the final the following year. United struck 18 goals while getting to the last four in the first of those seasons. The tally for that same stretch a year later was 14. This season there has been a further dip. If United are still formidable, it is in a different manner. The opposition in the Champions League tend to find them all but impregnable.

Football has, in general, assumed a different character for the elite and the gusto of Schalke is a throwback, even if it happens to be very welcome. It is obvious that the nature of the game has altered. There are sightings now and then of 4‑4‑2, but the 4‑2‑3‑1 formation and its variants has seduced coaches who appreciate how efficient it is at getting 10 men behind the ball swiftly. Whatever the system, Schalke are unusual in looking primed to attack.

The general shift in managerial thinking means that events from not so very long ago seem to belong in a wholly different era. By the time United reached the final in 1999, for instance, they had scored 27 goals in the tournament proper, despite the fact that sides played two games fewer then because the group phase led straight to the quarter-finals.

Contrasts, of course, are also affected by specific factors. At present a process of regeneration is in progress at Old Trafford, with players being sought who can guarantee both youthful ebullience and a standard of performance appropriate to United's ambitions. As it is, Ferguson's line-up has sustained itself by being efficient. In its own fashion, the away record must be intimidating to rivals.

On their travels in the Champions League, United have astonished by winning 10 of their last 12 matches and in the present campaign they are still to concede a goal away from home. Cherished as Barcelona are, their excellence lies elsewhere. So far in the current tournament, Pep Guardiola's squad have drawn two of their five games on the road and been beaten at the Emirates. It is correct, of course, to point to glitches at United as well.

Fluctuations can occur and Wayne Rooney's months of ineffectiveness were reported in detail, but the general resilience limits the damage done by opponents or by problems that arise within the club. Should Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand all be present, severe harm is unlikely.

In consequence, the manager must be more dismayed than he will admit to that the Dutch goalkeeper is about to retire. The 40-year-old cannot feel as timeless as he looked at the weekend when, with the game goalless, he had the concentration to react and save Jack Rodwell's drive in the 1-0 win over Everton. Such a contribution came as a relief to an audience that is a little uneasy since it still assumes that Old Trafford must be an arena for attacking spectacle by the home side.

It seems natural to assume United will get the better of Schalke in the end. However, it would make a certain sense if they let themselves recreate the buccaneering tone of the past to some extent. Ralf Rangnick's line-up have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of those four compelling fixtures in the knockout phase of the Champions League. It might almost make sense for circumspect United to go against recent type and rush to land the first blow in Gelsenkirchen.