Man United haunted by German ghosts of Champions League past
"Typical Germans," Sir Alex Ferguson sneered after Manchester United's away-goals quarterfinal exit against Bayern Munich (4-4 on aggregate) in the Champions League 12 months ago. The Scot was referring to the perceived gamesmanship of Ivica Olic, Franck Ribéry, Mark van Bommel and Bastian Schweinsteiger, who all made sure referee Nicola Rizzoli was well aware that United defender Rafael had already been on a yellow card before his dismissal.
It's perhaps worth noting that only one member of the accused quartet, Schweinsteiger, actually held a German passport. But in another sense, Ferguson's view could not be faulted. What he had witnessed at Old Trafford had indeed been another "typical" German performance, as both Bayern and United indeed reverted to type that night: For the fourth time in four occasions, the Red Devils were seen off by a Bundesliga side in a Champions League knockout tie.
Is it a mere statistical blip or are there discernible reasons why United has struggled against German teams in the knockout rounds (not including the 1999 final against Bayern Munich)? SI.com looks back at the four classic previous encounters and wonders whether Schalke 04 can keep up Germany's curious 100 percent record against England's dominant side in the semifinals next week.
Ferguson's men approached their first semifinal in 29 years with a mix of euphoria and dread. Britannia was cool, soccer was coming home and United was reawakening as a European force, but earlier disappointments in the Champions League, as well as Dortmund's greater stature at the time, had most experts favoring the Germans.
After a cautious opening 45 minutes in the Westfalenstadion, United was unlucky with a couple of swift, Eric Cantona-orchestrated counterattacks: Nicky Butt hit the post, a young David Beckham was thwarted by Borussia keeper Stefan Klos. Dortmund rode its luck again in the 76th minute, when Gary Pallister deflected a shot from René Tretschok into the net.
In the return leg, Dortmund made the most of a lack of concentration from the hosts and doubled its lead on aggregate through an early Lars Ricken strike (8th minute). The Germans spent the rest of the night defending their lead. Center back Jürgen Kohler became a hero by denying Cantona on the goal line and was generously applauded by the Old Trafford crowd at the final whistle. The Germany defender admitted years later that media reports about him suffering from diarrhea the night before had been made up to deflect attention from his wife's miscarriage. Cantona, who had wasted another glorious chance, decided to retire in the aftermath of the exit. Dortmund went on to win the European Cup against Juventus.
"We came to see the tactics of a great Italian side but only saw what we had known in advance: that Matthias Sammer is a fantastic player," Ferguson said after attending the final in Munich.
Stefan Effenberg and Co. were out for revenge after losing the final in Barcelona two years before to United. Ferguson knew the task would be formidable.
"This will be our most difficult game in the Champions League, even if we get to the final," he said.
Bayern frustrated United with a defensively solid and very efficient counterattacking performance in the first leg at Old Trafford. And fortune was on its side, this time: Four minutes from the end, Paulo Sergio ghosted in from a free kick to fire past Fabien Barthez.
Ferguson invoked his famous mind games -- "If we're still in it with 20 minutes to go, then it'll be difficult for them" -- before the return leg at the Olympiastadion, but United allowed an early goal again. Giovane Elber slotted home from a Michael Tarnat pass after five minutes. Mehmet Scholl's low drive into the corner in the 29th minute left the visitors with too much to do. Bayern held out after Ryan Giggs pulled United within 2-1 in the second half. The Germans ended up winning the Champions League on penalties against Valencia.
A team boasting (future) stars like Dimitar Berbatov, Lucio, Ze Roberto, Yildiray Bastürk, Michael Ballack and Bernd Schneider had narrowly overcome Liverpool in the previous round but was still seen as a rank outsider. Ferguson kept erroneously referring to the club as "Kaiserslautern" before the match, a slip of the tongue that might have betrayed some overconfidence. United twice took the lead at Old Trafford (Boris Zivkovic own goal, Ruud Van Nistelrooy penalty) but was twice pegged back by Klaus Toppmöller's team, which refused to buckle. Ballack, in his breakthrough season, and Oliver Neuville scored for the visitors, who took full advantage of some terrible defending.
In the second leg, a fantastic solo effort from Roy Keane, reminiscent of his goal against Juventus in 1999, put United ahead in the BayArena, but Oliver Neuville equalized just before halftime. United's comeback in the second half never materialized and Keane couldn't hide his resentment toward his teammates. Ferguson effectively dismantled the side over the next couple of seasons. Bayer lost the Champions League final against Real Madrid in Glasgow and ended up with three runner-up berths in all competitions.
United was coasting in the Allianz Arena after Wayne Rooney's first-minute strike. It forgot to kill off the tie, however, when Rooney missed another gilt-edged opportunity. A couple of bullish substitutions -- Berbatov and Antonio Valencia came on for Michael Carrick and Park Ji-Sung -- enabled Bayern to take control of midfield, but Louis van Gaal's men still needed a large slice of luck. Ribéry saw his free kick deflected into the goal off Rooney before Ivica Olic escaped the attentions of Patrice Evra in stoppage time.
Rooney, who twisted his ankle in the run-up of Bayern's second goal, was back on the pitch in Manchester but nowhere near his best. A rampant United didn't miss him though. Three goals inside 41 minutes (Darron Gibson, two for Nani) had the home crowd chanting "who are you?" at the visitors. Olic's strike just before halftime created some doubt for United, however, and Rafael's red card gave Bayern the initiative. Arjen Robben's wonder-strike decided the tie. Bayern went on to lose the final against José Mourinho's Internazionale in Madrid.
Schalke is seen as a rank outsider and there's a danger that United will subconsciously underestimate it, just as the Reds did against Leverkusen. But this time, it's not English insularity or the Bundesliga's relative lack of exposure that's too blame, at least not exclusively. Schalke, unlike Dortmund, Bayer and Bayern before, is nowhere near the top of the Bundesliga but in 10th place after a very indifferent campaign. Under new coach Ralf Rangnick, the team is still in the process of finding itself, whereas United's three previous opponents were precisely at their prime.
In terms of star quality, or the lack thereof, the comparison with Leverkusen is apt again. Spanish striker Raúl, Germany keeper Manuel Neuer, ex-Real-Madrid defender Christoph Metzelder and (injured) Dutch hit man Klaas-Jan Huntelaar are the only familiar names in a squad that looks a lot less daunting than United's. But it's actually possible that the true extent of the individual talent at Rangnick's disposal will only become apparent a few years down the line. Defender Benedikt Höwedes, for example, has made immense progress this season. Julian Draxler, 17, is as promising a talent as Dortmund's Ricken was in 1997, and Peruvian striker/wide midfielder Jefferson Farfán is having a season that has brought him to the attention of top Italian clubs.
Tactically, it's hard to find a common denominator. Bayern (2001) and Dortmund (1997) under Ottmar Hitzfeld were very balanced teams built on strong defensive principles while Leverkusen was a little gung-ho and Van Gaal's Bayern top-heavy. Rangnick instinctively favors attacking play but proved himself very flexible in his second spell at the Veltins-Arena. His Schalke is a work in progress and very difficult to categorize. It's too early to say whether it will achieve the kind of all-around quality that has characterized most good German teams in the past. At their very best, Dortmund and Bayern did everything well, and it was their very adaptability that made playing against them so difficult. Managers and players are always happier facing sides whose strengths and weaknesses are clearly defined and thus easier to prepare for.
One trait that was evident in United's previous German opponents was their strong character. A look at the eight matches in questions shows that the stereotypical "never say die" mentality was very much present. Four times, Bundesliga sides came from behind to turn the tables and on the other four occasions, they managed to see out leads without buckling under the onslaught. There is, to be fair, little to suggest that Schalke is made of similar stern stuff; United should have enough in its locker to go through. But Ferguson and his men will do well to heed the lessons of the past: At this stage of the competition, you can't afford to let your opponents get lucky, even if they do lack the glamour factor.