Tuesday’s Champions League match in Bucharest brought together two clubs with everything to play for: the home side needing a victory to have any chance in advancing from the group stage, while a win by visiting Schalke would clinch CL advance for the Germans. Neither happened, as a competent but uninspired effort by Schalke left them not only unable to secure their advance, but afterwards trailing both Chelsea and FC Basel in the Group E standings as the Swiss club upset Chelsea 1-0 Tuesday. Thus Schalke have placed themselves in a must-win situation two weeks from now against Basel in Gelsenkirchen to earn a CL advance and the resulting monies that result from knock-out stage competition.
Neither club came into the match with a great deal of confidence. Steaua’s last two domestic league matches ended in 1-1 draws, and more importantly, they hadn’t celebrated victory in 22 consecutive Champions League contests, although they had drawn three of their five CL Group matches this season. Schalke surrendered a 2-0 lead to Eintracht Frankfurt over the weekend, giving up three unanswered goals before captain Benedikt Höwedes saved total embarrassment by earning the Royal Blues a draw with his 88th minute goal. Moreover, Schalke had lost its last two Champions League contests, home and away with Chelsea, by an aggregate 6-0 deficit.
Schalke Coach Jens Keller was without injured starting goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand, playing former Schalke number one Ralf Fährmann in his place. Fährmann had only started one league game this season, but features the experience of 30 BuLi appearances. Keller was also without midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, who didn’t make the trip east. Keller lined up former Mainz striker Adam Szalai atop his formation, with 18 year-old Max Meyer playing behind the Hungarian and veterans Christian Fuchs and Jeffeson Farfan on the left and right wings, respectively. Jermaine Jones and Roman Neustädter shielded a backline of Dennis Aago and Astuto Uchida on the flanks, with Höwedes and Felipe Santana holding the central backline spots. Young star Julian Draxler started the game on the bench
Meanwhile, 38 year-old Steaua Coach .Laurențiu Reghecampf, who featured for both Energie Cottbus and Alemannia Aachen as a midfielder, had his side led by Sampdoria loanee Federico Piovaccari, who’d scored one CL goal this season as well as netting five times in seven domestic competitions for the Romanians. 6’6″ Romanian international Ciprian Tătărușanu, who has been with Steaua since 2008, started in goal for Reghecampf.
First Half Stalemate
As snowflakes swirled at Bucharest’s National Stadium, neither team could get on the scoreboard during the first 45 minutes. The opening minutes were played mostly in midfield, with each team ever-cautious not to surrender a quick chance. An early run by Steaua’s Adrian Popa was defended by Santana, yielding the Romanian’s only corner kick of the half, and other Steaua attacks in the half were snuffed out ably by Uchida and Aogo. Steaua’s best opportunity came from an exquisite shot taken by Italian Piovaccari just past the half hour mark, but Fährmann came up strong to deny the chance.
Schalke fared no better. Meyer won a corner kick, but two kicks resulting yielded nothing. Just prior to the half hour, a Fuchs cross from the left found Farfan, but he couldn’t quite put his foot well onto the ball and his shot went astray. Later it appeared that the pair teamed for the game’s opening goal, but as Farfan steamed down the byline before dishing off to an awaiting Fuchs who nailed his shot, the Peruvian had taken the ball slightly out of bounds and the goal was, correctly, nullified by the officials. Schalke amassed a slight edge in possession, along with an a 5-1 advantage in corner kicks and a 8-2 lead in shots taken, to no avail.
Second Half: More of the Same
Schalke often looked to score, but just couldn’t do so. Both Neustadter and Fuchs had opportunities to give the green-shirted Knappen the lead but were off target with their shots. Höwedes looked to be open in the box for a cross but was well-shielded by Steaua defender Iasmin Latovlevici. Just past the hour mark, three headers in the space of three minutes, first from Steaua’s Lukasz Szukala, and then by Höwedes and Jones, failed to find the back of the net.
Keller brought in Draxler for Meyer ten minutes later. The midfielder’s inclusion seemed to spark Schalke, but once again headed shots, this time by Szalai and Neustädter, went amiss. Fährmann made a good save on Nicolae Stanciu after earlier decking Piovaccari with a misplaced punch that got more of the striker than the ball. Draxler and Szalai worked up some nice attacking play as the game came towards its end, but weak shots betrayed their efforts. A final Farfan attempt was easy pickings for Tătărușanu as the game ended goalless, Steaua eliminated and Schalke creating their own pressurized final Group E contest when they host Basel December 11.
Winning the stats in Tuesday’s match can be of little consolation for Keller and company. Once again, Schalke soured instead of soared, despite double the shots and triple the corner kicks earned by their Romanian hosts. They could have ended Tuesday atop the Group E standings — now they have to fight for their lives to advance from the group in December.
Goalkeeping continues to be a troubling aspect of Schalke’s game. Hildebrand has suffered a season of inconsistency, and his replacement didn’t fare much better despite recording the clean sheet. Fährmann had an uneven performance — he certainly came up with at least two big, quality saves, but his first touch of the game, a lame clearance, was scary and he was out of position on a second half attacking flurry that could have brought defeat to the Royal Blues if not for the presence of Howedes. His misplaced punch that flattened Piovaccari looked more ill-timed and awkward than anything, but may have yielded a call for a penalty kick by a different officiating team.
Equally troubling was Schalke’s inability to finish. Some of their late second-half attempts lacked the velocity achieved by exhausted eight year-olds, and the inaccuracy of so many headed attempts amazes. One can obviously see how the club misses Huntelaar’s abilities, but with Szalai, Farfan, Draxler etc abundant scoring potential remains. It’s perhaps telling that Schalke has only one more win than FC Augsburg after 13 league matches despite the Bavarian side not having a fraction of the scoring talent that Schalke boasts, even without their injured Dutchman.
The next two weeks will be a telling time for Die Knappen, as Keller and company face league games against Stuttgart and in-form Borussia Mönchengladbach, along with a Pokal date with a usually high-scoring Hoffenheim side before they meet FC Basel and decide their Champions League fate. Schalke supporters will have their fingers crossed during the next fourteen days, hoping that their club can catch fire and find the inspiration that was lacking in their trip to Bucharest after the bright start to their Champions League season.
FC Steaua Bucuresti: Tatarusanu – Prepelita (Stanciu, 82′), Szukala, Gardos, Latovlevici – Bourceanu, Neagu (Varela, 46′) – Popa, Chipciu (Iancu, 77′), Tanase – Piovaccari
FC Schalke 04: Fährmann – Uchida, Höwedes, Santana, Aogo – Neustädter, J. Jones – Farfan, Meyer (Draxler, 73′), Fuchs (Obasi, 88′) – Szalai