• Manager says his team will play with 'hunger and passion'
• Taking on Manchester United 'biggest event of my career'
The leading clubs clash so often that it takes a lesser-known team to remind everyone that this stage of the Champions League should seethe with excitement. It does so for Schalke and their manager, Ralf Rangnick. His side are in a humdrum part of the Bundesliga but the prospect of the first leg of the semi-final with Manchester ensures that minds at the club are filled only with expectation.
These are early days in Rangnick's second stint in the post for Schalke but following that return in March, to take over from the sacked Felix Magath, he is very likely to have peaked already. No one at all can think him likely to improve on a 7-3 aggregate defeat of the Champions League holders Internazionale. Such a result builds confidence, though, and Rangnick is still relishing it. He volunteered the fact that it was Inter who scored the opening goal of the tie, as if he will never tire of holding his memories up to the light.
The 52-year-old Rangnick, however, is not truly enmeshed in the past. Schalke are potent and envisage a victory over United that will continue the perfect run of home wins in the competition. Oddly enough, those encounters with Inter misrepresented the side to a degree. Schalke have not conceded goals quite so readily as they did then. In the run of six group matches, for instance, the opposition scored on only three occasions.
Some regard Schalke's progress to this tie as being touched by eeriness. A habit has developed of referring to their appearance in the last four as a "moon landing" but the manager sees nothing out of this world about effective attacking. Although Schalke can reel off goals in this setting, United will expect to prevent a spree. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson's side have not lost an away goal in the Champions League this season.
Rangnick recognises that the contemporary United are patient rather than ebullient. "Nothing will be decided [in the first leg]," he said. "We've looked at United and they're a much more compact and disciplined team [nowadays]. There will not be as many goals in the match [as there were against Inter], it just won't happen. It will be a tight result and we just hope that we're still in a position to reach the final when we play the second leg."
That ambition is more likely to be shored up if the centre-half Benedikt Howedes recovers from an abdominal strain. But Rangnick says of the forthcoming trip to Old Trafford: "I'm convinced it will be tight right up to the end. I don't know how many of our players will have a chance to play in a game like this again. For me personally, the media interest in this is probably the biggest so far in my career. We have to be focused but we will enjoy the moment."
He believes his side can reach the final because his men, unlike United, are fresh and unencumbered by expectations. "Maybe the fact that we're a little bit inexperienced means that we're a really hungry team and have a real passion. You really saw that in the way we played against Inter Milan, so hopefully that will actually be a benefit for us."
United will be glad to have missed an encounter with Barcelona or Real Madrid, especially since the winners of that tie could then be faced at Wembley. While Schalke represent a fine opportunity, the pressure is on Ferguson's players to make the most of it.