By Preben Gietz
Felix Magath, suffering from an eye infection, wore stylish, yet over-sized, dark shades during his team’s game this weekend. The glasses certainly will not take on the role of a good luck charm as Schalke lost to relegation-battling Stuttgart.
This defeat was Schalke’s eighth in twelve Bundesliga games following a midweek match. They sit in tenth in the league standings, with no hope of qualifying for Europe and only five points clear of the relegation zone.
The Royal Blues will look forward to Wednesday, as their second round leg with Valencia will serve as a much-needed escape from the team’s Bundesliga tribulations. They have every reason to be optimistic as well, having won all Champions League home game this season, beating Benfica Lisbon (2-0), Hapoel Tel Aviv (3-1), and Olympique Lyon (3-0).
The score of the first leg, 1-1, placed Schalke into a terrific position to reach the quarterfinals. At the same time, however, it put Schalke in a rather precarious situation. “We’re in a good position”, said Felix Magath, “but it is dangerous. This makes the 1-1 appear much better than it actually is. If we think that all we have to do is hold on to a 0-0 draw, we’ll automatically come under intense pressure at the end of the game. So, we have to do something ourselves to take the lead.”
The one million dollar (in this case, euro) question that Schalke will be asking themselves is, how do we approach this game? Are we confident that we can keep a clean sheet? If not, are we going to take the initiative and try to score an early goal?
Schalke have shown this season that they are not capable of controlling a game. Often times, they let the opponent have much of the possession and did not defend high up the field.
The recent win in the DFB Pokal at Bayern was a prime example of this. Schalke’s game plan was to defend in their own half, thereby allowing Bayern to keep the ball for most of the game. The idea was to quickly transition once the ball was intercepted and create rare chances this way. While this appeared successful at times, taking advantage of Bayern’s lack of pace and agility, Schalke did not create many goal-scoring opportunities. They scored the winning goal from a corner, the other part of Magath’s defensive-minded plan – being compact defensively and take their chances from set pieces.
They could get away with this on Wednesday. On a good day, Manuel Neuer has the ability to frustrate an opponent by making one outstanding save after the other and, at the same time, exhibiting an air of total control and coolness. Although this would be a very risky undertaking, since a Valencia goal would force Schalke to take the initiative and create scoring opportunities.
Playing at home, in front of a very loud and enthusiastic crowd, it seems that Schalke’s best bet is to impose their will on this game. Feeding of their fans, winning the 50/50 balls early in the game is going to be crucial. Even with Klaas Jan Huntelaar sidelined with a knee injury, Schalke have enough offensive class to score a goal at any time. Next to Raul, Jurado and Farfan, who will certainly start, there still is one open spot, to be filled either by the inexperienced Swiss Mario Gavranovic or Brazilian Edu.
This game, along with the DFB Pokal final later on this season, is a chance for Schalke to salvage an otherwise forgettable season. It would also help out Schalke’s notoriously bad financial situation with a win guaranteeing them around seven million Euros.
14 years ago, Schalke beat Valencia 2-0 in the quarterfinal of the UEFA Cup on the way to winning the trophy. Schalke fans certainly would not mind experiencing a déjà vu.