The VeltinsArena may not quite be the fortress of old but Galatasaray fans who tried to dig their way into Schalke 04’s stadium before this week’s Champions League match were surely going too far.
‘‘Some supporters tried to dig a tunnel with their bare hands to watch the game,” an exasperated Schalke sporting director Horst Heldt said after the Turks edged a 4-3 aggregate win.
Having had a good look around the concrete-surrounded stadium before Saturday’s derby between Schalke and Borussia Dortmund, I can only congratulate the fans on their ingenuity. But now it’s Schalke, whose nickname is Die Knappen – the miners–who are left to pick up the rubble from an initially promising, but ultimately disappointing, Champions League campaign.
Knockout matches in the Champions League matches tend to be calamitous affairs for Schalke coaches. In 2008 Mirko Slomka took the Royal Blues to their first ever quarterfinal, but was then fired within a week of an honourable 2-0 aggregate defeat to Barcelona in the last eight.
In 2011, no-nonsense coach Felix Magath was shown the door days after a last 16 match against Valencia. Schalke actually won that tie but Magath’s poor relations with his bosses and the club’s lowly Bundesliga position meant the end of the road for the much travelled Magath.
So inexperienced Schalke coach Jens Keller might have felt a little nervous about his tenure when goals from Hamit Altintop, Burak Yimaz and Umut Bulut ended the Champions League campaign of Schalke, one of only three unbeaten teams in this year’s competition before the match.
But, perhaps, the tide is turning in Gelsenkirchen. Far from being fired, Keller should be in charge for the rest of the season and, with viable candidates for one of the biggest jobs in Germany thin on the ground (Armin Veh notwithstanding), the 42-year-old just might be in the hot seat next season.
”Keller is showing that he’s a really good manager and a good fit for Schalke,” said club chairman Clemens Toennies after the 3-2 second leg loss against Galatasaray.
One of those oft-heard statements of support for a coach, perhaps, but there is plenty of fighting talk from Keller.
”There is no reason for us to become depressed,” he said after the match. ”In the second half against Galatasaray we showed our true face.”
Indeed, but for a few fine saves from Galatasaray keeper Fernando Muslera, Schalke would still be in Friday’s quarterfinal draw.
Instead of dwelling on the doom, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful for Schalke fans.
First, no rival team seems capable of grabbing the fourth and final Champions League spot in the Bundesliga and Schalke should take advantage. Former Schalke under-17 boss Keller, whose only previous Bundesliga experience was a 14-game spell at Stuttgart, got off to an awful start after taking over from the sacked Huub Stevens in December.
Some were calling for his head after just one win in seven games in all competitions.
But three straight victories, culminating in a 2-1 win in the Ruhr Valley derby against Dortmund at the weekend, have taken Schalke from ninth to fourth place in the league.
Second, Schalke have a clutch of youngsters who can become future stars. Much has already been written about Julian Draxler. The winger-cum-playmaker has replaced Lewis Holtby’s through the centre, and at the weekend became the youngest player to make 100 appearances for Die Knappen. But Schalke have unearthed another diamond in fellow 19-year-old Saed Kolasinac, who has already played at full back and in the centre of midfield. Don’t forget accomplished central defender Joel Matip, who was outstanding against Dortmund, is still only 21.
Third, Toennies has persuaded key players to extend their contracts. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, last year’s top Bundesliga scorer, sealed a deal until 2015 and just last week captain Benedikt Howedes rejected offers from abroad to ink a deal through to 2017. And while new signing Michel Bastos may only be on loan, the deal’s 18-month duration is a relative lifetime after the chop and change years of Magath.
But Schalke still need to improve to compete truly with Bayern Munich and Dortmund.
Top players need to be more consistent and, in the case of Jermaine Jones, clean up their act. The American enforcer, suspended for the matches against Borussia Dortmund and Galatasaray, has picked up a new moniker, Der Wiederholungstäter. The Repeat Offender.
Fans need to believe. What struck me most after the Dortmund game was the supporters’ sense of disbelief that they had actually done the double over their bitterest rivals.
And crucially, Schalke must find stability at the very top of the club. As experienced goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand said last week:
“Everything is black and white at Schalke. After a loss the coach is the worst in the world, after a win he is suddenly the perfect man for the job.”
Eurosport2 has live Bundesliga action on Friday with Union Berlin v St Pauli (18:00) in the second division, before Wolfsburg v Fortuna (20:30). Then on Saturday don’t miss Dortmund v Freiburg (15:30) and Leverkusen v Bayern (18:30). On Sunday there’s Frankfurt v Stuttgart and Gladbach v Hannover. Coverage in north and east Europe only.Advertisements