Sluggish start undermines Schalke's late rally

Posted by Ross Dunbar

Hamit Altintop's superb strike beats the outstretched hand of Timo HildebrandGettyImagesHamit Altintop's superb strike beats the outstretched hand of Timo Hildebrand

Amidst a plethora of world-class stars, it was a local boy that had the biggest say in Tuesday night's Champions League last 16 tie in Germany. Hamit Altintop, Galatasaray's experienced midfielder, was born-and-raised a stones-throw away from the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen and plied his trade in Royal Blue for four seasons.

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The 30-year-old's unstoppable long-range drive from 35-yards out whizzed past Timo Hildebrand in the Schalke goal to level the scores at 1-1. Less than 18 minutes previously, the home side had edged ahead with their first venture into the Galatasaray penalty box and Roman Neustadter was on hand to poke the ball home from close range.

Schalke "slept through the first-half" according to 19-year-old Julian Draxler as the individual errors handed the Turkish side a 2-1 lead by the interval. Altintop and Burak Yilmaz - who is now the joint top-scorer of the tournament this season - struck within just a few minutes to give the Turkish SuperLig leaders a narrow half-time lead.

A tactical switch from Schalke boss Jens Keller, not only changed the momentum of the match, but will have done wonders for his own reputation. Sead Kolasinac was pushed into central-midfield and brought a control of the ball that had been missing from his team's frantic chasing of Galatasaray in the opening half. The introduction of Christian Fuchs at left-back was a smart call from the interim head coach to offer a more prolonged attacking outlet on the left-hand side.

If the match was a 45-minute affair, Schalke might have done enough to reach the next stage.

A high-tempo passing style - some of the best football S04 have played in a long time - and a relentless pressing of Galatasaray's deeper midfield base forced the visitors into a catalogue of errors, whilst the Germans seized the momentum in their fight for two goals without reply.

The quick feet and movement of Draxler was called upon when Schalke made interceptions around their opponent's 18-yard-line and the teenager showed some fantastic glimpses of craft and guile. As much as the Schalke starlet frustratingly couldn't find a way past Fernando Muslera in the goal, it was sheer perseverance which handed the Royal Blues a life-line in the last half an hour.

Finnish forward Teemu Pukki chased a loose ball, bundled the ball to Astuto Uchida, who was composed enough to find Michel Bastos, and the Brazilian rifled the ball high into the net for the equaliser on the night. The Veltins Arena was suddenly in fine voice again and Schalke looked the more likely of the two sides to go on and find the winning goal.

In the end, though, Schalke's zealous commitment to scoring the vital goal to see them through created massive spaces for Galatasaray to counter-attack towards the end. Umit Bulut found the net in stoppage time to hand the Royal Blues a cruel blow with little time remaining.

The self-confidence of Draxler will have warmed the hearts of the Schalke faithful on a bitterly cold night in Gelsenkirchen. The attacking-midfielder will have been on cloud nine this weekend, scoring in the Ruhr derby and breaking through the 100 appearance barrier in his teenage years.

The youngster is showing maturity well-beyond his years in the wake of the departing Lewis Holtby to Spurs. Draxler is carrying the expectations of Schalke on his shoulders, also, considering the injuries to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ibrahim Afellay, in their push to clinch the last-remaining European position. The modest teenager has never shirked the limelight, conducting the pre-match media conference with confidence and setting a positive example of those next to follow from the youth academy.

On that note, Keller made an ambitious move towards the end of the match, introducing 17-year-old Max Meyer into the proceedings. Meyer is highly-rated at the Veltins Arena by his interim trainer, plus sporting director Horst Heldt, and he is definitely one player who could be integral to their future.

The talent is evidently there - but general manager Horst Heldt has a decision to make: whether or not to stick with Keller for next season. Schalke were U19 German champions last season with the likes of Meyer and Sead Kolasinac progressing through the ranks and making a comfortable transition to first-team football. Of course, Tuesday night was a challenging environment for the Germans, but the disappointment of elimination will be a learning curve for future European campaigns.

In a utopian world, S04's local stars might have shone brightest in the Champions League - but it was an old-timer and a familiar foe that dumped the Royal Blues out of European competition for the rest of the season.

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