Chelsea may have got back to winning ways in the Champions League with a comprehensive 4-1 victory over Steaua Bucharest on Matchday 2, but their away trip to Schalke this week sets them up for a more challenging task.
The Blues are still playing catch up with their Group E rivals following a surprise defeat to Basel in their opening game. With the in-form Julian Draxler within their ranks, Schalke will provide Chelsea's sternest test yet.
Draxler is barely out of his teens—he turned 20 in September—but the German is a player in high demand for many reasons. In fact, if reports are to be believed, he can count Chelsea among his growing list of high-profile admirers (via The Mirror). Combating his threat come Tuesday evening will be paramount for Jose Mourinho's side.
To date, both Steaua and Basel have failed on that front, with Draxler scoring against each team in Schalke's two Group E victories. His exquisite strike against Basel on Matchday 2 proved decisive, giving his team a 1-0 victory in Switzerland that sees them sit three points clear of Chelsea and the Swiss champions.
His form in Europe this season has seen the youngster score in his last three outings, with a strike against PAOK Salonika—coming in the second leg of the Champions League playoffs and making sure of Schalke's place in the group stages—giving him a platform to build from.
Draxler has long been spoken of as another talent on Germany's impressive production line of footballers that has produced the likes of Mesut Ozil and Chelsea's very own Andre Schurrle in recent years.
This season, he is beginning to add maturity to that potential, with his club reaping the benefits.
Indeed, Schalke are suffering from a similar dilemma to Chelsea in that their strikers have not yet found their form in Europe.
Similar to the Blues, however, Schalke's star midfielder has stepped up when he has been needed, winning the team valuable points to take command of Group E.
Draxler's winner at St. Jakob-Park was a considerable blow, not just to Basel, but to Chelsea also. That night, Mourinho's men were comfortably brushing Steaua aside. A point shared by their other Group E opponents would have left things perfectly poised.
Now, Chelsea know they need to take maximum points against the Germans in Gelsenkirchen to avoid a panic in the latter stages of this group.
The form book suggests a Basel victory against Steaua in Romania, which will see Chelsea drop back into third unless they can overcome the challenge of Draxler and his teammates.
A defeat is out of the question, yet even a draw will leave Chelsea two points off the pace and needing victory in their final three matches to make sure of qualification. Of those, they travel to Switzerland—where they'll be looking to exact some form of revenge on Basel—while they also entertain Schalke and Steaua.
Chelsea's trip to Germany is part of a double-header with Schalke, with the Germans visiting Stamford Bridge in a fortnight. Basel will play group whipping boys Steaua twice, by which time two victories could see them out of sight.
We saw it last season in the Champions League with the Blues. They dropped points against Juventus on Matchday 1 in a game they should have won when leading 2-0. From that moment on they were never in control, chasing matches and their opponents before the task eventually proved too much.
They cannot afford a repeat this time out, nor can they afford to allow Draxler to maintain his goalscoring form in Europe. Do that and a group that once appeared simple on paper will quickly become their own group of death.