Roman Catholic footballers often call on a higher power as they step onto the field of play. But Germany’s top goalkeeper apparently believes his team already have a player with divine powers.
“When I heard that Raul was coming to Schalke, everything fell from my hands,” Manuel Neuer told Sport Bild this week. “The signing of Raul is comparable to that of the Pope.”
While one pontiff was indeed a fan of Schalke (Pope John Paul II became an honorary club member after celebrating mass at the old Parkstadion in 1987) the current Bishop of Rome might not appreciate comparisons with the current state of affairs.
Three months after coach Felix Magath persuaded Raul to trade the tree-lined avenues of sunny Madrid for less-than-picturesque Gelsenkirchen, Schalke are this year’s biggest Bundesliga flops. Pre-season hopes of a genuine title push have dissipated: last season’s runners-up go into Saturday’s match against Leverkusen one point off the bottom of the table with a solitary win in nine games.
So where has it all gone wrong for the Royal Blues?
- Schalke have lacked consistency after transferring no fewer than 29 players over the summer. Kevin Kuranyi may have cut an unpopular figure in the dressing room but he still banged in 18 goals. And the less said about the decision to loan wunderkid Lewis Holtby to table-topping Mainz the better. Magath has used 23 players in league and cup this season without finding the right ingredients.
- No team conceded fewer goals than Schalke last season, but Magath inexplicably broke up a cast iron back four. Marcelo Bordon and Rafinha left Germany while the outstanding Heikko Westermann was sold to rivals Hamburg because he wanted to play at centre back – his best position.
- A humiliating home defeat by archrivals Dortmund saw Schalke 04 rechristened ”Schalke 0-4” after the team’s four straight defeats at the start of the season.
- Neuer’s initial excitement at the signing of a legend who scored 228 goals for Real Madrid was understandable. But despite starting all nine league games, Raul has mustered only one goal and five shots on target. The likeable veteran looks off the pace.
Overshadowing Schalke’s three red cards this season are the players’ much publicised off-field disciplinary problems. A 0-0 draw at Eintracht Frankfurt was deemed reason enough for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Jermaine Jones and Neuer to hit the nightclubs of Germany’s financial capital till 4am the following morning. “I expect answers,” famed disciplinarian Magath fumed after hearing about the players’ antics. ”Let no one come to me and say they are too tired.”
Magath demanded those answers two days later, when Schalke played at second division FSV Frankfurt in the German Cup. A narrow 1-0 win didn’t disguise what has been a hellish season for the team.
Schalke fans like to believe their attachment to the club reaches religious proportions. Legendary winger Rüdiger Abramczik was nicknamed Flankengott (God of crosses) and the club’s fanzine is named ”Our Schalke.”
But their faith is being tested: they are still looking for a return on the tens of millions of euros splashed out on Huntelaar, Jose Manuel Jurado, Raul and Co.
But the team is shaky at the back and Huntelaar is the only player who has scored more than a single goal this season. As things stand, they need a miracle to mount a title bid.
And if Schalke fall to another defeat against Leverkusen this weekend, salvation might be impossible — even for Magath.
Eurosport2’s LIVE weekend coverage of the Bundesliga starts on Friday with Bayern looking to climb the table by beating Freiburg (20:30). On Saturday catch Wolfsburg v Stuttgart (15:30) and then see if Schalke can turn round their season against Leverkusen (18:30). We’ll show highlights of Bremen’s match against Nurnberg at 17:30. On Sunday don’t miss the top of the table clash between Mainz and Dortmund (LIVE at 15:30) and Hoffenheim v Hannover (17:30). to round off the weekend, we’ll bring you the best of all the weekend’s matches at 19:30.