Schalke in crisis

Three months is a long time in football.
Back in October when Schalke 04 won at arch rivals Borussia Dortmund in the Ruhr Valley Derby, life looked rosy for the Royal Blues. They were third in the Bundesliga, seven points behind leaders Bayern Munich and just two behind surprise package Eintracht Frankfurt. Now they`re in freefall, a huge 22 points behind runaway leaders Bayern and ten behind champions Dortmund.

Dutchman Huub Stevens, voted coach of the last century in his first spell at the club, was sacked just before Christmas and since then star player Lewis Holtby has jumped ship to join Tottenham Hotspur, seduced by the big money in the Premier League.

Schalke 04's coach Keller reacts during the German first division Bundesliga soccer match against Greuther Fuerth in Gelsenkirchen

New coach Jens Keller hasn`t been able to stop the rot with one win in his four competitive games. The dramatic 5-4 victory over Hannover in the first Bundesliga match of the new year just papered over the cracks. Last Saturday Schalke hit a new low when they lost at home to rock bottom Greuther Furth. Fans booed and whistled during and after the smash and grab defeat to a last minute goal which looked offside. It was only the Bavarians second win of their first ever Bundesliga campaign and their first in 17 games.

When Sporting Director Horst Heldt sacked Huub Stevens in December he explained, “The Bundesliga is our daily bread and there we were well behind expectations”.

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If that is Heldt’s criteria, and the bad results continue, it begs the question “Just how long has Keller got left in the job ?” Stevens was sacked after a run of six games without a win including four defeats but not much has changed.

Things could go from bad to worse this Saturday when they travel to Munich to face an irresistible Bayern. To compound matters, Dutch striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar will miss out with an eye injury while German international Julian Draxler is doubtful. Schalke’s season is in serious danger of imploding as eleven days later there’s the no small matter of a Champions League last 16 first leg against Galatasaray with an intimidating trip to Istanbul.
Despite the humiliating defeat to Greuther Furth, Heldt has given Keller the dreaded vote of confidence.

“We will continue with Jens (Keller) till the end of the season, we took that decision and announced it and that will not change.”

And there’s a very good reason for this. Keller is Heldt’s man. To sack him would be to admit that Heldt made a mistake. The problem is that Schalke fans have turned against Keller as Heldt knows full well.

“It is really sad that Jens wasn’t given a chance and hasn’ t been accepted. It is a situation we have to deal with which we’ve caused ourselves. That parts of the media and public opinion didn’t give him a chance is sad because he is a young German coach we needed to give a chance. That for me is not understandable.”

Keller also received support from defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones who gave a lively interview straight after the Greuther Furth defeat.

 Schalke 04's Jones reacts during their Champions League Group B soccer match against Arsenal in Gelsenkirchen

“I’ve been at Schalke for six years and I’ve seen how nearly every head coach who has worked here has been criticised from very early on. It’s impossible to work at this club. There’s always trouble. The fans are destroying us.It’s a pity. The team is united and working together well. ”

Fighting talk from the American. And the loan signings of two Brazilians Michel Bastos and Raffael are positives after losing Holtby. Fans though would have prepared defensive back up. Greek international defender Kyriakos Papadopoulous has been out since November as has Dutch winger Ibrahim Affelay who’s s reported to be far from impressed with the club’s treatment of his thigh injury.

Keller had a good reputation as the reserve coach but his only previous Bundesliga record at Stuttgart two years ago is underwhelming. He only lasted two months after winning just two of his nine games. On his appointment, the 42 year old Keller was refreshingly honest.

“Obviously I was surprised but being part of one of the big European leagues is not something you turn down.”

Is he a coach quite simply out of his depth or is he as some observers have remarked just the wrong coach at wrong time ? One irony is that Keller’s name in German means “cellar” and that`s exactly where worried Schalke fans think they`re heading after just one win in their last nine Bundesliga games.

Lurking just around the corner, there’s a daunting home game against arch rivals Dortmund at the start of March. The champions have made the best Bundesliga start to the New Year and will be already smelling blood. But will Keller still be in a job come the fiercest Derby in the Bundesliga ?

Tony Jeffers
Eurosport 2 Bundesliga commentator

We kick off Eurosport 2 weekend action on Saturday with the champions Borussia Dortmund hosting Hamburg. (15.30cet) That’s followed by runaway leaders Bayern Munich against struggling Schalke (18.30cet)
On Sunday Augsburg host Mainz (15.30cet) followed by Freiburg against Fortuna Dusseldorf in the Black Forest (17.30cet)

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