Any doubts that Schalke are the most curious football club in Europe were laid to rest after the Royal Blues’ jaw-dropping 5-2 win at Inter.
Schalke’s bizarre week began when their relegation six-pointer at St. Pauli was abandoned after the referee was whacked on the head by a plastic beer mug thrown by home fans. The team travelled to Milan, where they humiliated the European champions, in the process setting a set a record for goals scored by a German team in Italy. And in a delicious irony, they complete a frantic eight days this weekend by playing the team led by the nightmarishly unpopular coach they just fired.
How a dull team, flirting with relegation from the Bundesliga, can blaze a trail against Europe’s best is perhaps the greatest mystery in football this season.
Schalke won a tricky-looking Champions League group, and were then too strong for a handy Valencia side. But no-one could have predicted the team’s spectacular display against Inter.
”It could have ended 5-10 or 4-8,” beamed their new coach Ralf Rangnick. “For me, it was the best game ever. If anybody had told us before the game that we would have beaten Inter by three goals, I would have said that they were crazy.”
But Schalke are a crazy club and their display even excited UEFA’s normally reserved website, which called the game ”San Siro Madness”.
This, remember, is the team that has scored a mere 33 Bundesliga goals this term (only three sides have scored fewer) and has built a solid reputation for mind-numbing football. But while Real Madrid were banging in four goals against Tottenham, Schalke’s message to Jose Mourinho’s men seemed to be: Anything you can do, we can do better.
Barring a catastrophic collapse in Gelsenkirchen, only 180 minutes of football against Manchester United or Chelsea stand between Schalke becoming the most surprising Champions League finalists since Monaco in 2004.
Given that Schalke humbled the European champions without their best midfielder of late, Peer Kluge, and second top scorer, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, anything is possible.
Edu was Huntelaar’s replacement — and the revelation of the night. Known as a clumsy, one-paced forward before the match, the Brazilian forward doubled his entire season’s goal tally with two superb strikes at the San Siro. His first goal showed the kind of determination and speed of thought that his countryman Ronaldo would have been proud of on the same pitch a decade ago.
Spanish star Raul knows all about the Champions League but was left staggered by his teammates’ out of character display.
Such was his assured performance, it was hard to believe that Greek youngster Kyriakos Papadopoulos had started only five Bundesliga matches this season, while Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfan is in the form of his life.
Cue, Felix Magath.
Schalke players haven’t hidden their delight at the departure of ”Quaelix,” whose nickname is a combination of Felix and the German word for torture.
None more so than Farfan.
”The psychological pressure of Mr Magath has gone and now we are enjoying ourselves again at Schalke. There was no communication flow – the only time he would talk to me was when he was giving me a fine. It was just work, work, work.”
Farfan came within a whisker of signing for Wolfsburg before Magath rejoined the Wolves. How would he have felt about a second spell under Magath?
“I would have dropped dead,” Farfan announced. ”I have considered what it would have been like and I think I would have terminated my contract and gone home to Peru. I would rather have shifted earth and stones back there than play under Magath.”
Indeed, Magath’s training methods were legendary in their cruelty, leaving some seasoned pros in tears.
His departure has lifted the cloud over Schalke, and this season’s European income is a boon for Germany’s most debt-ridden club.
European glory is one thing though. Farfan and Co. would probably take just as much pleasure in pushing Magath and Wolfsburg a step closer to the ignominy of the Bundesliga 2 this weekend.