In-form Schalke obstacle to Chelsea's European ambitions

Posted by Phil Lythell

With Cardiff City dispatched Saturday, Chelsea’s attention now turns to their next appointment amid their glut of fixtures.

Tuesday’s Champions League encounter with Schalke will be a much bigger test than the one they faced last weekend with the Germans, presenting a step up in quality and the outcome potentially much more significant than the recent Premier League clash. This is a match Chelsea simply cannot afford to lose.

The opening matchday loss to Basel sent shock waves reverberating through Stamford Bridge as the bad memories of last season’s Champions League campaign started to flood the minds of Chelsea supporters. The ship was righted and set on a more positive course with the thumping win at Steaua Bucharest, but that result will mean little should the Blues return from Gelsenkirchen with nothing.

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Lose Tuesday and Chelsea will face an almighty task of overhauling Schalke to claim top spot in Group E, and the seeding in the first knockout round that goes with it.

More worrying, the spectre of the Europa League might start to loom large should Basel get their expected win against the group’s whipping boys in Romania. It would place the Swiss club on the same amount of points as Chelsea, but with their noses in front because of their superior head-to-head record.

With Jose Mourinho rarely wasting an opportunity to show his disdain for Europe’s junior competition, there will be a significant amount of personal, as well as collective, pride at stake for the remainder of the group stage.

With much at stake, the manager who has the vast majority of his players available for selection will be pleased, with only long-term casualty Marco van Ginkel and Ashley Cole on the treatment table. The loss of the Premier League’s best left-back is far from ideal, though Ryan Bertrand is an able deputy and, of course, has experience playing European football on the grandest possible stage.

In stark contrast, Schalke will be shorn of some of their brightest lights. Goal machine Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has been troubled by a knee injury all season, and a relapse has put him out of contention for Tuesday’s match. Peruvian Jefferson Farfan has also been ruled out, along with midfield lynchpin Marco Hoger. As with any team, they will certainly feel the loss of their absentees, though even without their more dominant players, they will be a tough proposition.

After a rocky start to the season in which they took just one point from their opening three Bundesliga fixtures, Schalke have recovered their form to rise to fifth in the table. Just one defeat in their last 10 matches in all competitions, and scoring three times or more no fewer than five times in that period highlights the task Chelsea have before them.

That Schalke like to attack will ask questions of Chelsea defensively, though it could also be to their advantage. The Blues can be ponderous when asked to break down well-organised opposition intent on protecting their goal, but spring into life when play is broken up and the opportunity to counterattack presents itself.

Examples can be found in each of their last two league matches, when a turnover resulted in the ball rapidly finding itself in the back of the net. Eden Hazard, Oscar, Juan Mata, Willian and Andre Schurrle are all tailor-made for that brand of football, and whoever takes the field out of that collection of attackers will enjoy any space afforded them by Schalke.

It is to be hoped, however, that Mourinho does not see fit to field Ramires as a defensive winger in a bid to stymie the threat posed by the Germans. For a start, it would rob the midfield of some much-needed energy, and would also set Chelsea off on the wrong foot.

Rafael Benitez employed that tactic last season in an effort to counterbalance the defensive indiscipline of Hazard and Mata, though it frequently left the team looking lopsided and unambitious. Mourinho tested the theory himself against Tottenham, and it produced the most lifeless 45 minutes of Chelsea’s season so far.

The error of his ways was duly noted, and as soon as Ramires was switched centrally and Mata was introduced from the bench, it was telling that the pendulum swung completely in Chelsea’s favour.

Up front, Fernando Torres can be expected to start, which is understandable given the encouragement his recent displays have given. Samuel Eto’o must be knocking on the door, however, after an impressive outing against Cardiff in which his movement and his finishing -- eventually -- held much to admire.

But whoever lines up for the Blues will face a genuine test of their credentials. It will not be easy, but by the same token, it is far from an impossible task. Schalke are a decent side, but they are beatable. Fingers crossed that Chelsea can prove that in the Veltins-Arena on Tuesday night.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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