Galatasaray vs. Schalke: 5 Key Battles to Watch
Galatasaray and Schalke resume their respective Champions League campaigns on Wednesday as the two square off in Istanbul.
The Turkish side finished runners-up behind Manchester United in Group H, edging Cluj due to their superior head-to-head record. The Germans' performance in Group B was a bit more convincing, and they beat Arsenal to the top spot.
Much has changed for Schalke since December, however. Coach Huub Stevens was sacked on the 16th, and the Gelsenkirchen side have suffered a dearth of form. Indeed, Die Knappen have won just one out of their last 12 games in all competitions.
Amid this horrid run, star playmaker Lewis Holtby was sold to Tottenham, and Michel Bastos and Raffael have been brought in to bolster the squad.
Gala have experienced their share of changes as well, but theirs have been decidedly better. The Istanbul club remain first in the Turkish league and signed stars in the form of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder in the January transfer window.
They looked strong in the group stage and will be well-prepared for the knockout rounds, having added two players who have previously won the Champions League.
With Wednesday's match quickly approaching, click "Begin Slideshow" for a profile of the top five head-to-head matchups that could decide the tie.
Didier Drogba vs. Benedikt Hoewedes
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After just half a season in China with Shanghai Shenhua, Didier Drogba has returned to European football. He signed with Galatasaray during the January transfer window and now has the chance to show his class once again in the Champions League.
Last season, the aging Ivorian striker proved he still had the class to be a difference-maker as he scored six goals for Chelsea in the Champions League.
He was integral to the Blues' 4-1 comeback win over Napoli in the Round of 16 and scored the only goal in a shock 1-0 win against Barcelona in the semifinal. And in the final, his late, late header forced extra time after it appeared that Thomas Mueller had won the game for Bayern Munich. Chelsea went on to win in penalties; to no surprise, Drogba converted his spot-kick.
Schalke captain Benedikt Hoewedes will be charged with the task of keeping Drogba under wraps. At 24, the Germany international is young but very experienced. He was instrumental to Schalke's run to the Champions League semifinal two seasons ago, and seems to always step up for his club on the European stage.
Indeed, in 19 Champions League appearances, Hoewedes has scored four goals—quite an impressive rate for a defender. And certainly more prolific than his tally of seven goals in 135 career Bundesliga appearances.
Set pieces aside, Hoewedes will certainly need to worry more about marking Drogba than going forward. In his Gala debut on Friday, the veteran striker scored and assisted a goal apiece in a 2-1 win away to Akhisar Bele.
Drogba's class has transcended age, and his return to Europe is proof that he's not quite ready to bow out of football at the highest level.
Wesley Sneijder vs. Roman Neustaedter
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Two years ago, Wesley Sneijder would have deserved to win the Ballon d'Or. The Dutch playmaker had won a treble with Inter and reached the World Cup final with the Netherlands and was arguably the most influential player for both club and country.
Since then, his stock has plummeted dramatically.
Post-World Cup fatigue, injuries and a miserable run of form have made Sneijder a shadow of his former self. In two-and-a-half seasons following the 2010 World Cup, he made just 50 appearances for Inter in Serie A, contributing a modest nine goals and 12 assists.
Sneijder became more or less a forgotten figure at San Siro, and in January completed his transfer to Galatasaray. He has shown his class in the Champions League many times in the past, but now has something to prove as he looks to revive his career.
Roman Neustaedter will stand opposite Sneijder in the holding midfield role. The Ukraine-born midfielder was a vital asset for Moenchengladbach in their run to a surprise fourth-placed finish in the Bundesliga last season, and his strong form for Schalke in the opening months of the current campaign led to him earning his Germany debut in a November friendly with the Netherlands.
The 25-year-old Neustaedter is a very intelligent player with excellent tactical discipline and a strong understanding of the fundamentals of football. He will have to be at his very best, though, if he is to shut down Sneijder.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar vs. Fernando Muslera
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Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has missed Schalke's last two games due to a burst blood vessel in his eye, but is expected to return to action for the upcoming Champions League match.
The Dutchman will be an unwelcome sight for Galatasaray; he was on target 48 times last season in all club competitions. And although his prolificacy has declined this season, Huntelaar has found the net when it matters most. He led all Schalke scorers in the Champions League group stage with four goals.
With Ciprian Marica also sidelined, Schalke were forced to play without a natural striker over the weekend. And although they scored twice against Mainz, they will likely need more firepower if they are to grab an away goal or more in Istanbul.
Huntelaar will face Fernando Muslera in the Galatasaray goal. The 26-year-old was guilty of a howler in Uruguay's recent friendly with Spain, in which he allowed a rather tame Cesc Fabregas shot from about 30 yards to slip through his hands and into the net.
Still, Muslera has proven himself as an excellent shot-stopper, and he played very well for Gala in the group stage, particularly in Gala's win against Manchester United.
Michel Bastos vs. Emmanuel Eboue
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Although Schalke's form has left plenty to be desired in recent months, Michel Bastos has exceeded expectations since moving from Lyon to Gelsenkirchen in January. The Brazil international scored on his Schalke debut and hit the target twice against Mainz over the weekend.
Having played in 26 games in the Champions League during his career with Lyon, the 29-year-old Bastos comes with plenty of international experience. He has a great left-footed shot, can dribbleand perhaps offers enough of an X-factor to help Schalke get an away goal or two.
Bastos will go head-to-head with a similarly experienced opponent on the wing in the form of Emmanuel Eboue. The 29-year-old has earned 74 caps with Ivory Coast and has made 54 Champions League appearances with Arsenal and Gala.
Although he was pushed out of the Arsenal squad in 2011, Eboue is still clearly a solid player. He performed well in the Champions League group stage as Gala twice pushed Manchester United to the brink, emerging victorious in Istanbul.
Jefferson Farfan vs. Albert Riera
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Jefferson Farfan was perhaps Schalke's best attacking player alongside Raul in their run to the 2010 Champions League semifinals. The Peruvian winger is extremely explosive, can take on opponents with his close dribbling control and is accordingly a lethal threat as a creator.
As he looks to make his way into attack on the right wing, Farfan will have to be wary of Albert Riera. The 30-year-old Gala man has spent most of his career on the left of midfield, but he has now been converted to left-back where he has played exclusively this season.
His roots as an attacking player make Riera a man to watch bombing forward on the attack, and Farfan will have to be careful not to let his opponent slip away. On the other hand, the Spaniard is a bit of a liability in defense, having only converted to left-back due to Hakan Balta's drop in form.
Farfan hasn't exactly shown his best qualities this season, and it will be interesting to see whether he can find his stride when it matters most.