By Preben Gietz
It is 10.21 pm on an unpleasantly cold Munich evening. Referee Florian Meyer blows his whistle. Bernd Hollerbach, one of Felix Magath’s assistants, jumps on the back of his boss and embraces him. The force of Hollerbach’s leap pushes Magath into the fourth official who could not get out of the way fast enough. Magath’s glasses fall off. These are scenes of intense joy. The rest of the bench rushes onto the field. Raul runs towards the corner of the visiting Schalke fans, punts the game ball into the crowd and repeatedly pumps his fist into the freezing air.
Schalke have just reached the final of the DFB Pokal after beating Bayern Munich 1-0. No one had expected this. On the weekend Schalke disappointed in a 1-1 draw at home to Nurnberg. The week before they lost to bottom of the league Monchengladbach. They have only won two out of seven league games in 2011, scoring a meager 4 goals. While Bayern have been far from convincing themselves, it seemed a far-fetched idea for Schalke to beat the defending Cup holder in Munich. Or did it? Haven’t they performed well in the Champions League? Weren’t they in the semifinal of the DFB Pokal after all?
The answer is that, in some ways, this result was not too surprising. Outside of the Bundesliga, Schalke have only lost one game this season – in September, during the Champions League group stages, 1-0 at Lyon. They beat the French side 3-0 at home. Schalke also beat Benfica Lisbon, twice. The “Royal Blues” won the group and were drawn to face Valencia in the round of 16. In the first leg, Schalke battled to a 1-1 draw in Spain, putting them in a fantastic position for the second leg on March 9th. In the DFB Pokal, Schalke have somewhat benefited from an easy draw, playing one 3rd and two 2nd division teams. They won, nevertheless, and proceeded all the way to the semifinal.
Throughout the season, this team has been two-faced. One side, the pretty one, shows up under the lights, during the week, against the big names. The other one, very ugly at times, tends to dominate on the weekends, in those monotonous Bundesliga games. It seems that this is how Schalke view Bundesliga games – tedious, dull, uninteresting. Of course this is unintentional. Of course the players care about Bundesliga games. They know that doing well in the league is what is most important to the club. Still, Magath manages to get the best out of his players in the big games. Games where everything is on the line, either you win or you are done. Another, more simple, explanation for Schalke’s league struggles is a lack of depth on the roster. The quality gap between the star players (Raul, Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan, and Manuel Neuer), and the rest of the team, is vast. The missing presence in central midfield is apparent, and the center back pairing of Benedikt Howedes and Christoph Metzelder has been, surprisingly, suspect for most of the season. This basic deficiency in depth is evident in this statistic: Schalke have lost seven of eleven Bundesliga games following a midweek Champions League or DFB Pokal matchup, only winning two. The team does not have enough quality players to be competitive in three competitions simultaneously. They have not been able to compensate for injuries or general fatigue.
At the moment, Schalke are 28 points behind first placed and archrival Dortmund, and only 6 points clear off the relegation zone. They are in the DFB Pokal final against Duisburg, a 2nd division team, and seem to have an excellent shot at knocking out Valencia and reaching the Champions League quarterfinals. While dwindling in 10th place in the Bundesliga, Schalke may end up amongst the top 8 in Europe. And, Raul is on his way to winning his first ever national cup title, something he never achieved during his illustrious years at Real Madrid. Well, as long as Schalke show up with their pretty face, the one that wins them the big games.