On a great evening in Gelsenkirchen, FC Schalke 04 defeated Spanish side Valencia CF, 3-1, to advance to the Champions League quarterfinal round. The two teams had drawn, 1-1, in the first leg played in Spain. Schalke, currently in the 10th spot in the Bundsliga table, again showed that they are capable of great things during this topsy-turvy season, as the Royal Blues have also advanced to the finals of this year’s DFB Pokal Cup.
Schalke advanced despite a very shaky defensive effort, as often Valencia looked the better team. But Jefferson Farfan, Manuel Neuer and the much-maligned manager, Felix Magath, were the heroes in Schalke’s uncertain advance.
Valencia scored first, in the 17th minute, as defender Ricardo Costa headed home a strong cross from midfielder Mehmet Topal to put the Orange ahead 1-0, and more crucially, tie them with Schalke on away goals. Schalke’s defending seemed slow and dreary as Valencia held possession, and began taking the huge Veltins Arena crowd out of the game. Schalke looked particularly vulnerable to long passes down the middle, as their defenders were constantly beaten by Valencia attackers. Although Raul missed a header that would have equalized soon after Valencia went on top, most of the first half appeared to be another disappointing Schalke 2010-2011 showing.
But with five minutes left before intermission, young Mario Garvanovic drew a foul just outside the 18 yard box, and Jefferson Farfan’s curling free kick gave the Veltins Arena throng a reason to cheer as he equalized outside the stretched arms of Valencia keeper Guaita. The teams went into the locker room at halftime tied 1-1, and despite a shoddy defensive performance, Schalke were breathing again.
Schalke came out pressing in the 2nd half, but again Valencia’s pacy and athletic defenders seemed to have things quite under control. But seven minutes in, a Schalke cross by Peer Kluge was poorly punched away by Guaita, and although Farfan’s resulting shot was saved, the rebound fell to the awaiting Gavranovic. The Swiss forward of Bosnian descent hit the right post, but his shot rolled across the goalmouth and hit the left post, and ricocheted past the goal line to give Schalke a 2-1 lead.
To their credit, Valencia kept their cool and always looked threatening. Attacker Aritz Aduriz had two great chances, but pulled one to the side and was stonewalled on the other by a superb save by Manuel Neuer. Mata too was denied by the Schalke keeper, and the minutes wound down, there was true concern that Valencia would strike the away goal that would put them through. But Schalke survived, with some luck, and Gavranovic twice hit the woodwork in his attempts to ice the game, including a cheeky long-distance shot very late that caught Guiata out of position but hit the top crossbar. Finally Farfan, with only moments left, gave Schalke fans the chance to exhale as he beat the pressing Valencia team and shot past Guiata to finalize the score at 3-1.
Schalke Heroes: Farfan, Neuer, Magath
Manuel Neuer. Again, Germany’s #1 demonstrated why, at age 24, he is one of the world’s best. Neuer outplayed Valencia’s Guaita, and that in itself was arguably the key factor in Schalke’s victory. Neuer again gave a world-class performance, not only with his three fine saves but his ability to control the penalty area, denying Valencia opportunities with his ability to leap forward and punch the ball away.
Felix Magath. Let’s hear some love for the inscrutable one. Yes, Schalke have been disappointing in Bundesliga play, but the under-fire manager has now gotten Die Knappen to the Pokal Cup final and the Champions League quarterfinals. I’d take that. Many of Magath’s transfer moves have left Schalke fans unhappy, and again the club’s inconsistency in league play would drive any supporter batty.
But, let’s look what Magath did today. The fluid, composed Valencia side looked ever-likely to exploit Schalke’s vulnerable defense, while Valencia looked superb in defense (with the exception of their goalkeeper). So, Champions League 2nd leg game, with a narrow 2-1 lead, what does Magath do? He brings in 18 year-old Kyriakis Papadopoulos at the hour mark for Joel Matip, and 17 year-old Julian Draxler in the 76th minute and Hans Sarpei in for Peer Kluge.
The two youngsters and Sarpei, who was demoted from the first team in November, have started a total of seven Bundesliga matches this season. Not many managers, especially one under such severe fire as Magath, would have the courage to bring two very young and inexperienced players in a match this important, or someone who only a few months earlier was purged from first team play. But that is Magath. Certainly some of his decisions are questionable, but I’ll take a manager who has the courage of his convictions and is not afraid to do what he thinks is right, regardless of the potential ammunition he supplies to his critics. Maagath is that kind of manager, and although his methods may grow wearisome over time with a club, Schalke need to really ponder what they are doing before they rashly dismiss such an intelligent and brave leader.
Schalke Lineup: Neuer, Metzelder, Howedes, Escudero, Uchida, Matip, Kluge, Jurado, Farfan, Gavranovic, Raul: Subs Used: Papadopoulos 60′ (for Matip), Draxler 76′ (for Jurado), Sarpei 81′ (for Kluge)
Valencia Lineup: Guaita, R. Costa, Navarro, Matthieu, Bruno, Topal, Banega, Mata, Joaquin, Aduriz, Pablo Subs Used: Soldado 64′ (for Pablo), A. Costa 70′ (for Banega), Jonas 74′ (for Aduriz)
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