By Preben Gietz
At the end of 90 truly remarkable minutes, both, Inter Milan’s and Schalke’s players were seen walking into the changing rooms with heads shaking. The only difference was that the German side had big smiles on their faces, while the Italians looked like they just attended a funeral.
Surprisingly, most Schalke players gave very sober statements in post game interviews. “We’re very happy”, “we can celebrate a bit tonight”, and “we have to start focusing on the weekend”. They simply had not realized or understood what had taken place on this shocking night. Schalke scored five goals in Milan. The final score of 5-2 secured them a spot in Europe’s final four, unless Inter scores four unanswered goals in the return leg. They are on the verge of knocking out the defending champion of Europe.
This is the most significant win for Schalke since winning the UEFA Cup in 1997 in Milan against…Inter. It will go down in history as one of the great performances by a German team on the European stage. There have only been a couple that measure up to last night’s spectacle: Kaiserslautern thrashing Real Madrid 5-0 in 1982 and Karlsruhe’s 7-0 against Valencia in 1993.
“We’ll have to put this evening in perspective and let it settle”, said Ralf Rangnick, Schalke’s coach since taking over from Felix Magath three weeks ago. Rangnick has been able to restore some order in a club that dominated the headlines in Germany for all the wrong reasons in past months.
The team is struggling in the Bundesliga this season, sitting in tenth place, eight points clear off the relegation zone and fifteen away from the Champions League. Club officials and Magath engaged in a public and rather tedious battle lasting months. Players were unhappy with the way Magath treated them. Fans were upset first at Magath, then at club officials for turning the club into a laughingstock in the media.
Players seemed relieved after Magath’s firing and displayed their newly found self-confidence last night. Schalke didn’t fold after conceding an astonishing, yet very unlucky, goal in the opening seconds. They showed belief in their own abilities and went for it right from the start.
Rangnick deserves some of the credit for this. Noting Inter’s blatant defensive weaknesses, he opted for a very attacking team. With Edu, Raul, Jurado and Baumjohann, Schalke had four attack-minded players on the field. After the game, Rangnick explained this set up: “Watching Inter play again Milan on Saturday, it was noticeable how little pressure there was on Milan’s players in the midfield. Starting a technical player like Jurado helped us control the game.” Last night, Schalke were rewarded for a brave tactical mindset. They were determined to put Inter under pressure and it paid off.
One of the many highlights in this game was a Manuel Neuer save on Eto’o in the second half. While on his way to becoming the world’s best goalkeeper, Neuer’s most valuable asset may be his coolness and composure. When asked if there will be any celebrations, he said, “we’ll stick to apple juice”. Even on one of the biggest nights in German club football history, Neuer, Schalke’s captain, did not let himself get carried away.