It was just totally unfair. Saturday’s late fixture on MatchDay 21 of the Bundesliga season featured a high-stepping Bayern München squad hosting the bluer-than-blue Schalke club led by Jens Keller. A seeming mismatch of epic proportions. And a mismatch it was, as the Bavarians pasted the slumping Royal Blues 4-0 at the Allianz.
Everything has been going right for Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern team. The München club had started the 2013 portion of the season right where they left off in 2012, rolling to three consecutive shutout victories in their first three competitive matches. Their record-breaking form is unassailable, and with second-place Borussia Dortmund dropping all three points earlier in the day against HSV and Bayer Leverkusen splitting points with Borussia Monchengladbach, the end result seems inevitable …. a 22nd Bundesliga title for the red-clad Bavarians. Their home form has been excellent, with a 7-2-1 mark after 10 matches while their away form in the league has been beyond belief….28 out of a potential 30 points captured, while allowing only ONE goal while netting 25 away goals. Heynckes will pass on the Bayern coaching torch to Pep Guardiola this summer, whose signing earlier by Bayern has moved the Bundesliga to center stage in the footballing world, and even the much-coveted young Brazilian Neymar is rumored to be interested in making his European debut playing for Bayern.
While all is heavenly on the red side of München (except perhaps for some inevitable Arjen Robben squabbling), troubles have continued to mount in Gelsenkirchen. The season reached its lowest point last weekend, when the Royal Blues lost to last-place Greuther Fürth in Gelsenkirchen 2-1, on a last-minute goal by Nikola Djurdjic in only his second Bundesliga match. With left back Christian Fuchs suspended, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar out with an eye injury to join Ibrahim Afellay and Kyriakos Papadopoulos on the injured list, Lewis Holtby gone to Spurs and Jefferson Farfan only arriving back in Germany on gameday following his midweek international duty for Peru in Trinidad & Tobago, the bad news just continued to pour on the beleaguered club as they faced arguably the world’s best club based on current form.
With so many absences, Keller fielded four players in his starting XI — Sead Kolasinac, Christoph Metzelder, Tranquillo Barnetta and Teemu Pukki — who between them had totaled barely 600 minutes on the pitch in Schalke’s previous 20 2012/2013 league matches. In contrast, Heynckes had the luxury of resting two of the league’s most in-form attackers, Mario Mandžukić and Thomas Müller, Saturday while still posting a menacing lineup.
Bayern Beat Down
Despite their hobbled condition, Schalke showed some spirit early at the Allianz, playing fairly well, although almost all of their good play consisted of making desperate tackles and interceptions as Bayern threatened almost continually. Newcomer Michel Bastos provided whatever little attacking spark the Royal Blues could muster, including a decent shot on goal in the 10th minute that went to the nearpost sidenetting, and was aware and helpful in defense, but the Bayern tide of attack looked to overcome the visitors. The dam finally broke in the 19th minute, when Franck Ribery was fouled clumsily by Marco Hoger. David Alaba stood up for the penalty kick, and nicely slotted to the left to hand the Bavarians a 1-0 lead.
The home side had all the momentum, and doubled their lead in the 32nd minute from a brilliant Bastian Schweinsteiger free kick. Although the half ended with Schalke only two goals behind, the perception was that they were out of their element, as Bayern were totally dominant. Bayern’s superiority was easy to see, and the halftime statistics supported what was obvious to the eye — the Bavarians led S04 in shots (10-3). crosses (6-0), completed passes (322-80), CKs (8-2) and held almost 70% possession after the first 45 minutes.
The intermission break proved to provide little for a Schalke revival. Six minutes after break, Mario Gomez laid off a nice ball that Alaba teed past Timo Hildebrand, and whatever slight, slight hope that Schalke might make some sort of comeback ended. Gomez later added his own goal, provided by Arjen Robben, to finish the game at 4-0, as Schalke’s attack was without any bite and their midfield play shambolic. For a club with a proud history, Schalke was almost to be pitied for their inept play. Die Knappen have now won but once in their last eleven league matches, and have drifted out of a European birth. The hard luck only continues, as Schalke’s Champions League opponent, Turkish Süper Lig leader Galatasaray have loaded up for Europe by bringing in the inestimable Wesley Sneijder and former ace Chelsea scorer Didier Drogba. When it rains, it pours.
Commentary — Fatal Instincts
A streak of one win in eleven matches certainly includes some harsh luck. Schalke weren’t that poor in their loss last week to Furth, only beaten by a stoppage time goal, and who knows, if Bastos early strike had been on target to give them a lead at the Allianz, the not-so – Royal Blues may have not succumbed so easily to their hosts, although Bayern’s superiority left little hope for the visitors to pull off a miracle upset.
While some see the source of Schalke’s woes as the inability to bring in any backline help in the last transfer windows, the lack of a clear-cut number one goalkeeper, the ineffectual play of Tranquillo Barnetta and Teemu Pukki, along with the club’s numerous injury setbacks, the problems at Schalke seem to lie in two managerial decisions — the dismissal of Coach Huub Stevens in December and the inability to re-sign Raul during the summer.
While Schalke were in poor form under Stevens when he was dismissed, earning only two points in his final six league matches in charge, the veteran coach led his team to an advance in the Champions League and had started the league season so well that, despite their late Hinrunde struggles, they still held a European berth in the standings at winter break. Under Stevens this season, Schalke earned seven league wins (as many as fellow European contenders Freiburg, Stuttgart, Hannover and Hamburg and only one less than BvB), had beaten holders Dortmund and Arsenal, and had also made it through the first two rounds of the Pokal. While there was talk that Stevens had lost the team, there didn’t seem to be any indication of the level of mutiny as displayed by Wolfsburg players concerning their coach, Felix Magath.
The trouble with firing someone is replacing them. Although current Greuther Furth Coach Mike Büskens, a longtime Schalke player and assistant coach, was thought to be next in line for the head job in Gelsenkirchen, Schalke chose assistant Jens Keller to succeed Stevens, notwithstanding the fact that Keller’s only head coaching experience had consisted of only a rocky two months at Stuttgart. Since taking over a club with annual Champions League ambitions, Keller has only earned one win in five competitive matches.
The inability to lure Raul to remain in Gelsenkirchen also has to be seen, in retrospect, a disaster. Though now 35 years old, the Spaniard actually improved on his offensive statistics in his second season at Schalke, scoring 15 goals and registering 6 assists after totaling 13 goals and 5 assists for Die Knappen in 2010/2011. Hardly the indication of a player in decline, Raul took the money offered by Al-Sadd and is now in Doha, but considering his emotional investment in Schalke’s fortunes and the corresponding revival of his career, one feels that Raul would have preferred to remain a Royal Blue had he been proffered an acceptable contract deal. Especially with Jan-Klaas Huntelaar up for contract renewal, it probably was a reasonable financial decision to not go overboard in negotiations with Raul, but as a footballing decision, it was nonsense. There are only so many players of Raul’s will, leadership and abilities, and one cannot afford to lose them. Think of it this way …. is it imaginable that Schalke would win only once in eleven games were Raul still with the team? Hardly.
Instead of weathering out a poor run of form, Schalke reacted too quickly to the dissatisfied moans of supporters and fired Stevens without having a suitable replacement. They allowed finances to dictate the departure of the team’s truest leader. Although the crisis at Schalke may be overstated, those decisions, along with an unfortunate rash of injuries, have put the dampers on what early on appeared to be another successful season.
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