Raul dreaming of a special reunion
The football fates occasionally indulge in a touch of romanticism and they could be brewing up one of their more improbable tales as this season's Champions League reaches its thrilling conclusion.
A Wembley final between Barcelona and Manchester United may appear the most likely scenario ahead of the semi-final clashes, yet the presence of one iconic figure in the Schalke line-up suggests the two favourites should delay reserving hotel accommodation in London for the last weekend in May.
Schalke No.7 Raul, the all-time Champions League record goalscorer, is dreaming of another appearance in the final as the tournament's rank outsiders prepare for a showdown against Premier League champions-elect Manchester United, with the enticing prospect of a reunion with his beloved Real Madrid dangling tantalisingly in front of him.
Of course, the club Raul left after 16 glorious years and a record-breaking 323 goals last summer have to negotiate their own mountain in the shape of Barcelona before they can contemplate Wembley glory, yet the striker who remains a sacred figure in Madrid believes the impossible could just become reality in the next week.
After Valencia and Inter Milan were swept aside by the Bundesliga strugglers in the knockout stages of this season's Champions League, the star of Schalke's show believes another great upset may now be within reach.
"The beauty of football is that anything, I mean, anything can happen in 90 minutes," Raul says. "A famous club with all the money in the world can inexplicably have an off day and fall victim to a well-organised, resourceful and brave outsider, and all of us at Schalke have to believe in this. In my time at Real Madrid, we lost games when it seemed as if all the odds were stacked in our favour. The underdog mentality can be so dangerous for a big club to overcome and this has been in Schalke's favour throughout our run.
"If you totally believe in yourself, there is no limit to what can be achieved and, even though Schalke will start this semi-final against United as long-shots, we are getting a kick out of making people notice us as more than just a minnow in the Champions League. Now this story could end with me playing a Champions League final against Real Madrid. It's an amazing dream, but thinking too far ahead in sport can be dangerous, so any thoughts of a reunion have to take a back-seat."
Raul has four Champions League goals to his credit against Manchester United, but he insists his own record counts for little now.
"I have done well against United in the past and these sorts of heavyweight battles have definitely brought the best out in me over the years," he says. "Yet my past at Real will not have any meaningful bearing on the result of a match between Schalke and Manchester United in a massive semi-final.
"There are five key components of this United team and the first is clearly their amazing manager. Ferguson's leadership has always been amazing and then they have the rock - Nemanja Vidic - in central defence. I like Michael Carrick for his passing in midfield and then you have Wayne Rooney and Hernandez up front. Clearly United have many more influential players, but these are the key men in my eyes and I very much appreciate how Rooney floats around in the attacking-third. As for Hernandez, well, he is the find of the season.
"However, Schalke cannot worry so much about United. Our team has a lot of players who have never played in a game of this magnitude before, but this can be a positive for us. These boys should not have any fear as this is a stage they will want to play on, one they have worked so hard to get to. Part of my job at Schalke is to guide these boys, point them in the right direction. If I can share my know-how and help our young players, then so much the better, but our Champions League story is about a team effort, not about Raul enjoying a final ride. Schalke is a passionate football town and it will just go crazy if we pull this off against United."
Mourinho made a bold move when he agreed to bring down the curtain on Raul's Real Madrid career last July, with many believing he felt there was only space for one 'special one' at the Bernabeu. Yet the former Spain striker insists he was never ushered away by the new coach, with his desire to sample pastures new the key reason he walked away.
"Contrary to what everyone seems to believe, Mourinho would have been happy for me to stay at Real Madrid for another season, but I wanted to turn the page and start a new exciting chapter in my career," he says. "Obviously, I will always have a deep and emotional attachment to Real Madrid and I will die as a fan of the club, but it was flattering that so many big managers and top clubs offered me a new adventure when the time came to move on last summer.
"Even though there was flattering interest in me from the Premier League in England, the USA and the United Arab Emirates, I decided to go with the club who were the most insistent and that was Schalke. They had been in contact with me for months and they never stopped enthusiastically putting their case to me.
"The fact that I'm sitting here and talking about the prospect of a Champions League semi-final shows I did not make a bad decision, though I have to admit the results we have achieved in the Bundesliga have been disappointing. Mid-table was not our ambition last summer, let me tell you. On a personal level, I have scored in good quantities in the Bundesliga and in Europe. I came to Germany to prove I could cut it in another country, another environment, and feel I've answered all the questions about me."
As Raul took his record-breaking Champions League goal tally to 71 by getting on the scoresheet in both legs of the quarter-final rout of Inter, those who craved his signature last summer doubtless looked on with a knowing grin.
Ferguson is among those who had a hunch that there were more goals to be mined from Raul's well-worn boots and, not for the first time, the judgement of the legendary United manager has been proven to be accurate. The danger now must be that his failure to sign a striker who was written off as yesterday's man may now be about to come back to haunt him.
One of the modern game's truly great hit-men is seeking a glorious finale to his illustrious career and maybe, just maybe, Raul and Real Madrid are destined to have one final night sharing the same spotlight.