GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany, April 25, 2011 (AFP) - Sir Alex Ferguson admitted on Monday that Manchester United's push for Champions League glory is fired by a desire to make ground on their more decorated European rivals.
United tackle Schalke here on Tuesday in the first leg of their semi-final, as they bid to reach what would be their third final in the space of four years.
The three-time champions are seasoned operators on the European stage and have yet to lose in this season's competition, but Ferguson says they still have ground to make up in the silverware stakes.
"The present group has enough experience in Europe now. I think it's where we should be," said the United coach at his pre-match press conference.
"My expectation has always been high in regard to the European scene. You do get envious of other clubs' records in Europe and we're trying to get to parity with those clubs: Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Liverpool...
"We need to progress quickly to get to that level again."
United, eliminated at the quarter-final stage by Bayern last season, will be appearing in the semi-finals of Europe's premier cup tournament for the 12th time, while Schalke are novices at this stage of the competition.
Ferguson's side are therefore strong favourites to reach the Wembley decider on May 28, but the Scot says past experience suggests they are in for a bumpy ride.
"You always get apprehensive at this stage of the competition," he said.
"We've had the same situation over the years, when we played Juventus (in 1998-99). There was apprehension in the first game at home (1-1) but we released that in the second leg (3-2).
"It was the same with Barcelona (in 2007-08). We got the result we wanted at home (a 1-0 win after a 0-0 draw in the away leg) but the last few minutes were agony.
"You run the full gamut of emotion in Champions League semi-finals, because it's never easy."
Despite their relative lack of experience, Schalke go into the game on the back of an astonishing 7-3 aggregate demolition of holders Inter Milan in the quarter-finals and Ferguson was fulsome in his praise of their exploits.
"They never looked like losing the game," he said.
"That's quite a credit to them in terms of their experience against Inter Milan. Never at any stage did I think they'd lose."
United are currently six points clear at the top of the Premier League after a 1-0 defeat of Everton last Saturday and Ferguson said the team had been buoyed by the returns from injury of several key players.
"What's important is the freshness that has come back into the team in recent weeks," he said.
"(Antonio) Valencia, (Rio) Ferdinand, Anderson, Park (Ji-Sung)... It sometimes happens that way. Big competitions come along and you find all your players are fit. It gives you a selection problem, but you're glad to have them."
Striker Dimitar Berbatov did not make the trip to Germany due to a groin strain and Darren Fletcher is not yet fully fit after a virus, but right-back Rafael has returned from a knee problem to give Ferguson a near full squad.
In Berbatobv's absence, Wayne Rooney is likely to continue his fruitful partnership with Javier Hernandez, whose 83rd-minute header brought victory against Everton.
"Good players create their own platform in terms of the importance of their performances," said Ferguson.
"Wayne knows performance will always be what he's judged on. There's so much expectation on the boy. But he's stepped up to the mark for that; no-one else has done it (for him)."
Tuesday's game at Veltins Arena will see Rooney return to the scene of his sending off for England against Portugal at the 2006 World Cup, but Ferguson said it would not affect him.
"You have to put bad moments behind you and try to do better. It's a normal thing for any footballer. I wasn't aware it was in Gelsenkirchen. I actually didn't see that game."