Schalke: Seven Reasons Not to Doubt the Germans Again in Run-Up to UCL Semifinal
Admit it, non-Bundesliga watchers: When you saw Inter matched up with Schalke for the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, there wasn't a doubt in your mind that the Italians would be the ones locking horns with the victor of the Chelsea-Manchester United clash in the next round.
If you weren't one of the Königsblauen detractors—you two percent of football fans, you—good on your judgment.
All around the Internet though, from discussion boards to the Twitter accounts of football followers at every corner of the world, Schalke were being underestimated.
The Germans were to be completely out of their depth. After all, they didn't have the experience under European club football's brightest lights, there would be no way they could contain the bundle of creativity that is Wesley Sneijder and they simply could not bottle up Samuel Eto'o.
So much for that.
Die Knappen demolished the Italians 7-3 on aggregate—including a 5-2 thrashing at the San Siro.
Thanks to a combination of swift counterattacking, well-taken corners, opportunistic finishing, never losing a mark in open play and good ol' fashioned hustle, it is the Bundesliga representatives that have earned the right to battle English giants Manchester United for a spot in the Champions League final in London's own Wembley Stadium.
Now, before you write Schalke off again, let's consider what strengths they actually have to bring to the Red Devils' table, shall we?
Veltins-Arena Supporters Are Some of the Best in Europe
Every player and manager ever to speak into a microphone or tape recorder has put forth the following statement—or some like-minded variant—over the course of their time in football: "[My club's] supporters are the best supporters in the world."
When you read it, unless your favourite player at the club of your heart said it, eyes are rolled, sighs are let out and you forget your eyes ever passed over those ink blots or pixels within the hour.
That is, of course, unless the likes of Manuel Neuer said it and you've ever been to Veltins-Arena or watched enough Schalke home games on television.
Schalke supporters are energetic, loud, positive and keep up the singing for the full 90 minutes, regardless of the score, the competition or the trophy their beloved club is fighting for.
Thus far in the Champions League, they have done exceptionally well to play the role of rude hosts, helping their Königsblauen to an unblemished record in five home matches, complete with a combined scoreline of 13-3.
Undoubtedly, they will do their best to match or even make the already rough atmosphere that much more hostile when Manchester United come calling.
Schalke Boast Wingers of All Kinds Available for Selection
Alexander Baumjohann and José Manuel Jurado: Creative, spot-on passers, deadly crossers. Jefferson Farfán and Julian Draxler: Speedy, incisive, clever. Lukas Schmitz: Shutdown defender, passes effectively.
Pick your poison.
On a given day, Schalke manager Ralf Rangnick can run out any combination of the above five for his wide midfield.
Depending upon opposing personnel, die Knappen can spread and penetrate a back four with overlapping speed, stretch the pitch wide and send crosses onto strikers' heads or overload the right side with right back Atsuto Uchida jumping up into the play, while the likes of Lukas Schmitz prevents deadly counterattacks on the left.
Rangnick pitted a number of different combos against Inter Milan's fullbacks in both matches, starting with creativity and freezing the game out with Schmitz and another pair of fresh legs opposite him in the latter stages.
It worked to great effect against the Italians and has yielded the same results in Rangnick's pair of Bundesliga matches since taking the reins in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Against Manchester United, an approach of that ilk should be expected—and to a similar degree of success.
The Centre Half Pairing of Höwedes and Metzelder Is Next to Perfect in Europe
As any football fan worth their salt knows, if a centre back pairing is to be successful, between the two there needs to be a combination of quickness, height, strength, heading ability, awareness and communication skill.
Often times—as is the case with Germany's national team, for example—one stopper is the better man-marker, while the other possess great strength and bosses the air around the net.
Schalke's preferred duo, Benedikt Höwedes and Christoph Metzelder, are both jacks of all trades with regard to centre back attributes.
Both are airtight markers, commanding in the air, strong in the tackle and are vocal and organized in defence, all while being capable of popping up in a counterattack to put away the odd goal.
As the two of them can handle themselves in any situation handed to a centre back, Schalke needn't worry when a cross is sent in toward a Metzelder mark or when Höwedes is isolated one-on-one.
Oh, not to mention they trot out with the added confidence of a certain Manuel Neuer standing tall behind them [but more on that next].
Their proficiency in all aspects of defending has served their club well thus far in Europe, as the two have seen just eight goals past them in ten Champions League outings in this campaign.
While continuing to average less than a goal per game against with the likes of Manchester United in opposition may be asking a bit much, if it happens, this writer will not be coloured surprised.
Gelsenkirchen's Favourite Son, Manuel Neuer
Let's face it.
Germany international goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is one of—if not the—best shot stoppers in the world at this moment in time.
Schalke's No.1 is quick, sure-handed, well-positioned, commanding and fearless.
He exudes confidence, letting those aiding his defence of the Königsblauen onion sack play without even a worry that a slip up of theirs would lead to a certain goal.
Just watch the February Revierderby shift he turned in against Borussia Dortmund, any of Schalke's Champions League matches, one of his 28 Bundesliga appearances in 2010-11 or his World Cup exploits in South Africa.
His performances speak for themselves.
Mr. Champions League Himself
There are not very many players out there with more experience in the UEFA Champions League than talismanic Schalke front man Raúl.
However, at the age of 33, you would be forgiven for thinking for a split second that he may have lost a step or maybe a bit of an edge.
But, of course, you would be wrong.
Thus far in his first season in a shirt sporting colours other than the white of Real Madrid, Raúl has notched 12 goals in 29 Bundesliga appearances and a further five in his 10 Champions League kicks, pacing die Knappen in either competition.
Over the course of the season, several Schalke players have commented on Raúl's impeccable work ethic, unbelievable conditioning and unwavering professionalism.
But, perhaps putting it best with regard to how he is looked upon by Schalke players and fans alike was Christoph Metzelder, as he told Sky Sports, "Raúl hasn't even finished his first season yet and he is already an icon in Gelsenkirchen. In this area people appreciate his way of playing. He's not only scoring goals, but he fights as well.
Raúl is Mr. Champions League."
With 64 goals to his name in the competition all-time, he has bulged more nets than any other player. With three championship medals in his trophy case, he is in elite footballing company. Complete with leadership abilities unlike few before him, there is not another forward this writer would rather have leading his line on European club football's biggest stage.
That Raúl character's CV certainly matches up to the nickname.
Expect his performance against Manchester United to do very much the same.
Felix Magath's Legacy at Schalke: Superior Conditioning
Felix Magath is not the most endearing coach in the world.
At Schalke, he was slammed for having his players run for miles at a time carrying medicine balls in March, for installing a hill on the club's training ground, for banishing those out of his favour to the reserve side, for running Jermaine Jones and Ivan Rakitić right out of Germany—much less Gelsenkirchen—and for his highly publicised post-holiday break humiliation of Jefferson Farfán.
Hell, even before all of this, he had earned the nickname Quälix, a mix of his given name and the German verb for "to torture," quälen.
But for all of his man management shortcomings, he did at least one thing right in his tenure at the helm of die Königsblauen: He departed with Schalke players disciplined and able to run the 90th minute as they did the first.
As games wear on, nobody can keep up with the Germans.
Inter certainly couldn't—the Nerazzurri were outpaced from the word go at the San Siro and in Veltins-Arena for the full 90.
Without a doubt, Quälix branded his mark on the club, leaving it with a squad of quite probably the best collective fitness in football, but...
This Is Ralf Rangnick's Schalke Now
While it is anyone's guess as to whether Schalke's form renaissance of late has to do with the management skill of Ralf Rangnick or with the squad just plain being over the moon since Quälix got his marching orders, something is undeniably different in Königsblauen camp.
Since Rangnick's perfectly timed 17 March labelling as head man, his new-look Schalke have played a much more up tempo, attacking game than Magath's disciplined, overtly tactical approach and it has obviously payed off.
In Schalke's four clashes with Herr Ralf leading the charge, die Knappen have left winners in each by a combined score of 10-3.
All of this aside though, the sun hath set but twice since Schalke booked their date with Manchester United in the Champions League semifinals. And somehow, despite their great showing as the underdog against Inter, the boys in royal blue are being talked down upon again.
"Schalke will be out of their depth against Man U," they say. "No chance for the Germans," I've read. "Easy trip to Wembley for the Red Devils!"
Not so fast—Ralf Rangnick's Schalke are no pushovers.
This matchup will be a little bit more up in the air than most think.