It’s been three months of contrasting, almost conflicting emotions for Ralf Rangnick in the Old Trafford dugout — but he’s certainly enjoying a better time of it than his previous visit to the home of Manchester United.
In March 2011, Rangnick succeeded Felix Magath at Schalke, returning to a club where his legacy was insulated by a domestic runners-up double in 2004/05. As the footballing adage goes: ‘the streets will never forget’. The Ruhr Valley certainly never forgot when Rangnick returned to Gelsenkirchen for his second tour of duty.
He inherited a squad pockmarked by well-established stars, but one that seemed determined to fire on all cylinders in every competition, except for the Bundesliga. That wavering league form ultimately cost Magath his job in March of the 2010/11 season, despite cruising through the Champions League groups and just beating Bayern Munich in the semi-final of the DFB-Pokal.
A fortnight after claiming that Bavarian scalp, Magath was out, and Rangnick was in. He immediately set to work prolonging Schalke’s fairytale ascent in Europe, beating Champions League holders Inter 7-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals and setting up a mouthwatering tie against Man Utd in the penultimate round.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s men ran out 2-0 victors in the first leg with a two-minute double in the second half silencing a raucous Veltins-Arena audience, before the Premier League heavyweights rank amok at Old Trafford in a 4-1 triumph, despite resting several key men and not even putting Wayne Rooney on the bench.
Rangnick’s Schalke have generated a cult-hero status in Gelsenkirchen for their Cinderella run in the Champions League that season. Envious of watching Revierderby nemesis Borussia Dortmund consistently producing in Europe. That year was Schalke’s turn… and what a squad they had.
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Starting XI in the first leg at Veltins-Arena
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer
Defenders: Atsuto Uchida, Joel Matip, Christoph Metzelder, Hans Sarpei
Midfielders: Jefferson Farfan, Alexander Baumjohann, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Jose Manuel Jurado
Forwards: Edu, Raul
Substitutes used: Julian Draxler, Peer Kluge, Sergio Escudero
Starting XI in the second leg at Old Trafford
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer
Defenders: Atsuto Uchida, Christoph Metzelder, Benedikt Howedes, Sergio Escudero
Midfielders: Alexander Baumjohann, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Jose Manuel Jurado
Forwards: Jefferson Farfan, Raul, Julian Draxler
Substitutes used: Joel Matip, Edu, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
Gelsenkirchen has been a hotbed for attacking talent since the turn of the century, as Ilkay Gundogan, Mesut Ozil and Leroy Sane would all attest to, but Manuel Neuer has bucked that trend as one of the finest shot-stoppers ever to emerge from Germany, and his journey started at Schalke.
In the first leg against Man Utd, Neuer produced a series of show-stopping saves to almost single-handedly keep Schalke in the tie, before Ferguson’s men eventually breached just past the hour mark. His defensive team-mates did him few favours in the return leg, as Man Utd battered Schalke from pillar to post, breaching Rangnick’s defence like a hot knife through butter.
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Despite conceding six goals across the two legs, Ferguson praised Neuer’s performance as the best he had ever come up against from a goalkeeper during his career in the dugout. “In my time at United it’s the finest display of goalkeeping against us,” Ferguson said.
Joel Matip started and played the full match in the first leg as Schalke defended valiantly against Ferguson’s free-flowing frontline, but he could only merit a place on the bench in the return fixture, a move that was possibly miscalculated by Rangnick. Against a weakened Man Utd side, Schalke capitulated, and Rangnick ended up bringing on Matip 15 minutes from time for Farfan just to shore up the backline and ensure more goals didn’t fly past Neuer.
A fresh-faced Draxler enjoyed his breakthrough season in 2010/11 and earned a starting berth at Old Trafford, giving the teenager a taste of the grand stage before he would go on to become a fully-fledged Germany international and move to PSG in one of their many Galactico-style transfers. Undeterred by the Old Trafford crowd, Draxler showcased an innate understanding of the game but just couldn’t influence the tie in what was his first-ever Champions League start. Certainly not a bad venue to hear the famous anthem for the first time as the camera pans in on you.
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It was revealed during the time of this double-header that Raul nearly joined Man Utd instead of Schalke. Had the esteemed sharp-shooter opted for Manchester over Gelsenkirchen, then he would have been on the winning side that season, and who knows: the difference between a win and a loss in the Champions League final against Barcelona?
Hypotheticals aside, Raul wasn’t able to influence proceedings like he once did at Old Trafford 11 years prior, when he bagged a brace in a 3-2 win for Real Madrid that sent Ferguson’s side crashing out of the quarter-finals, and set Los Blancos on course for a famous 3-0 win in the final over Valencia.
“We do prefer to sign young players as a rule but when you get an opportunity to sign experience like that you’ve got to have a look at it,” Ferguson said in 2011.
It was obvious his time at Real Madrid had come to an end, and he certainly wasn’t too old to be effective, as he has been showing in Germany. We spoke to his agent about a possible move but we already had Javier Hernandez by then and, with Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen available, we thought we could afford to let the chance pass. If we hadn’t had Michael at the club at the time I might well have signed him.”
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A Schalke legend, Farfan made over 200 appearances for the Royal Blues during his time in Gelsenkirchen, and could have been the difference-maker against Man Utd. Blessed with raw pace, a technically-superb touch and an eye for goal, Farfan mentioned before the game that he “would have preferred Chelsea in the semi-finals but we are still confident”. That confidence was shattered by the end of the two legs, but Chelsea — who were knocked out by their Premier League rivals the round prior — were in the midst of a glorious era under Carlo Ancelotti, so perhaps wouldn’t have been much easier.