Schalke's lesser lights leading the way

Posted by Ross Dunbar

The Royal Blues have weathered an almighty storm in 2013 that plunged the club into a mini-crisis with Jens Keller at the helm. It was a highly unpopular appointment, and even more so, after his side came out of their Dubai winter camp nursing a 5-0 battering from FC Bayern. But a decent away leg in the Champions League and victory in the Ruhr derby has given the club renewed confidence.

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It was an unlikely hero in German-American Jermaine Jones that grabbed the crucial goal at the Turk Telekom Arena three weeks ago to give Schalke a 1-1 away draw in the first leg of their Champions League tie with Galatasaray. Jones' desire led him further up the park to equalise in the first-half and his tenacity in midfield will be missed, as he serves a one-match suspension this week.

Following their gusty performance in Istanbul, Keller has inspired confidence in Schalke's budding young talents to step to the fore in the face of adversity. The proceeding league match against Fortuna Dusseldorf produced a similar mettlesome display with 21-year-old Cameroonian defender Joel Matip rising to defiantly score both goals in a 2-1 win over their Ruhr neighbours.

From then, a new hero was born in the slight frame of young attacker Julian Draxler.

The hype of his name and the exposure that comes with it have added extrinsic pressures on the 19-year-old, who scored two sublime goals and assisted another, in Schalke's 4-1 demolition of VfL Wolfsburg away from home. Besides the massive expectation of being a Schalke player, Draxler has filled the void left by midfielder Lewis Holtby who decided to join Tottenham six months prior to the end of his contract with Schalke.

With the scrutiny on caretaker-manager Keller alleviating, the Royal Blues faced another hurdle in the 142nd Ruhr derby with German champions Borussia Dortmund. The Schalke coach needn't worry about the fortitude of his less-experienced players, as they conjured up one outstanding performance to pick up all three points and weave their way back into that lucrative Champions League position.

Draxler shone again - likewise Matip and Saed Kolasinac - with the Royal Blues displaying a clinical edge sorely lacking domestically with their nearest rivals. A surging, yet controlled, burst from the usually erratic Astuto Uchida picked out Draxler who cushioned the ball in his path and rifled home with conviction on his 100th competitive appearance for Schalke - the youngest German player to reach that feat.

His young team-mate Matip has been a fantastic rock at the back for Schalke since Keller took charge, bringing a physical dominance to the defence, as well as disciplined composure, to eradicate the fragile slackness on the ball of his previous appearances. That originally forced him to play as a holding-midfielder to avoid serious mistakes at the back, but he has thrived in his more-suited role alongside skipper Benedikt Howedes, who agreed a four-year extension at the weekend.

The Royal Blues never faltered when in front early on in the derby and the resurgent Klaas-Jan Huntelaar found the back of the net - for the second time in consecutive matches - before the break to give Keller's side the lead in-front of a vociferous home crowd.

Equally, the locals will need to find their voice on Tuesday night. It was a prominent feature of their charge to the last-four of this tournament in 2010 with the Veltins-Arena rocking for every home leg. Their dream came to an end against Manchester United – but Schalke overcame Valencia and Inter Milan in the knockout stages, maintaining an impressive home record of two defeats in 16 Champions League matches.

Their last-16 tie against Valencia was similarly poised after the first-leg in Spain with Raul giving Schalke the advantage ahead of the return match. The only other occasions, outside of the 21st Century, that Schalke have reached the latter stages of Europe's premier club competition was 55 years ago in a double-header with the great Wolverhampton Wanderers side of the 1950s. The West Germans held on to a 2-2 draw at Molineux before progressing with a 2-1 home triumph in Gelsenkirchen.

Keller might have freed Schalke from the shackles of distress and tribulation, for now, but the Germans require an equally courageous performance without the services of Huntelaar and Jones, in addition to Kyriakos Papadopolous, Ciprian Marica and Ibrahim Afellay, to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Schalke are one of three unbeaten sides on home turf in the competition - two of which have booked their place in the next round - and they will need to maximise their home advantage, while showing the same security and assurance on the pitch.

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