Tuesday’s friendly between Schalke 04 and AC Milan was less about the score (0:1) and more about addressing two big questions for the Königsblauen: Who will grab the no. 1 spot between the posts, and who will step up to replace the irreplaceable Raul? Unfortunately neither question seemed to get a definitive answer.
Huub Stevens’ starting XI for the game at auf Schalke was a mix of the workhorses — Sergio Escudero, Joel Matip, Christoph Metzelder, Atsuto Uchida, Jefferson Farfan and Jurado — and the young guns — Lewis Holtby, Teemu Pukki and Julian Draxler — with Timo Hildebrand in goal. Recent transfer Roman Neustädter started as well. The first half looked good for Schalke who appeared to have the majority of possession and made several successful interceptions and steals. Most of the game was played in midfield, though, with neither team having an abundance of chances on goal. AC Milan seemed to have the upper hand in the opening moments of the game, but Schalke soon quieted them. Neither keeper had to work exceedingly hard, although Hildebrand had a great save in the 8th minute against Stephan El Shaarawy who was having a standout game for the Italian team.
The real standouts for Schalke in the first half were the Blonde Squad of Holtby and Pukki who, along with assists from Jurado, communicated well to set each other up for a number of scoring opportunities. However, the duo’s only solid chance was in the 24th minute after a corner from Farfan. Pukki laid it back well to Holtby who was denied only by the post. Holtby looked focused on sealing up the hole Raul left, and Pukki showed he wasn’t afraid to shoot — now, if he can only score. The first half ended scoreless, with Schalke looking more in sync than the Milan team that is undergoing a huge turnover. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva have left for PSG while such familiar faces as Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzhagi are no longer with the Rossoneri. (Inzhagi is now a coach of the Milan U-17 squad).
As he has done in all three pre-season games so far, Stevens made wholesale changes for the second half with Escudero, Metzelder, Neustädter, Pukki, Jurado and Draxler coming off for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Christian Fuchs, recent transfer Tranquillo Barnetta, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Marco Höger and Christoph Moritz. Ralf Fahrmann came in to replace Hildebrand in goal.
The changes appeared to have a stifling effect as the team seemed confused and less focused in the second half. They continued to apply pressure well and seemed to have improved, over last year, in winning the ball, but they also showed that it was still fairly easy to defend against them.
In fact, the second half was the much drier half for both teams with the exception of the one and only goal of the game. Urby Emanuelson scored off a beautiful pass, leaving Farfan in his dust. Fahrmann came out too far and then missed the play, although he did force Emanuelson to strike at a tight angle. Huntelaar had a great chance to equalize in the 67th minute, but Farfan’s cross was a bit too high for him to head down, and the ball sailed over the goal.
Stevens made two more changes in the second half, sending in Rene Klingenburg, a Schalke U19 call-up, and Benedikt Höwedes, who is trying for a successful return to the squad after a season filled with injuries. Neither had much impact on the game, however, and it ended with the one Milan goal.
Stevens appears still undecided about his squad. Hildebrand had the better game today, as Fahrmann holds some blame for the Milan goal. However, it is only one mistake in one friendly and probably not a real indicator of whom Stevens will settle on. Throw in Lars Unnerstall, who was out with an Achilles tendon injury, and it seems Schalke has its choice of keepers again this season. After all of the keeper injuries last year, however, having one too many may be a good thing.
As for the vacuum created by Raul’s departure, the Holtby-Pukki duo seems to hold the most promise. If that pairing can hold up with the introduction of Huntelaar in the mix, Schalke could have some depth in offensive possibilities, as opposed to relying solely on the league’s top scorer. Draxler was quiet in this game, but he holds promise as well. It is also not clear how Jermaine Jones will fit into the formation, as the USMNT member was held out for this game as a precaution following an injury.
Schalke has at least three more preseason games for Stevens to answer the big questions. The squad will travel to FC Magdeburg this Friday, July 27, for a friendly and then play another friendly against Udinese Aug. 5. The Royal Blues will begin their DFB Pokal competition Sunday, Aug. 19, against FC Saarbrücken and open the 2012-2013 season Aug. 25 at Hannover 96.