Schalke’s first taste of European competition since their famous 4-3 away victory at Real Madrid in March comes tonight as they travel to Cyprus for the first match of Europa League group stage against reigning Cyprus champions APOEL Nicosia.
Schalke has already had an up-and-down campaign in the Bundesliga to start the competitive year. In its first five games in all competitions, Andre Breitenreiter’s side has scored eleven goals and conceded five in their three wins, one draw, and one loss.
However, European matches are of a different breed: there truly is no easy game. Schalke must exhibit dominance in all 90 minutes of each group stage game if they want to bring the full 18 points with them to the round of 16.
For their first game, here are some essential lessons and tactics the Gelsenkirchen side must have on their side.
1) Höwedes’ Return
Schalke’s defense took a big hit last June when Benedikt Höwedes took a knock in an international friendly, leaving their captain and star defender on the sidelines for three months. If that wasn’t enough, on Match Day 1, Schalke lost another center back in Matija Nastasic, who had started strongly by scoring his first0ever goal for Schalke in their 5-0 destruction of MSV Duisburg in the domestic cup. It comes at only the most essential time that Höwedes returns to captain his side in Europe’s second-tier competition.
In the match, Höwedes should join Joel Matip in the center. Matip, who has been in absolutely terrific form this season so far, has two assists and a goal in just four Bundesliga games thus far. If Matip is at his best and Howedes returns in some form, Schalke’s center defense shouldn’t be a worry for Breitenreiter.
2) Partnering Huntelaar with Di Santo
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar . . . his game against Mainz last Sunday summed up his form in the last several months. He missed his fourth-consecutive penalty (saved, to soften the attack on words) in the first five minutes of the game and missed a sitter when he headed the ball wide of the post. Yet, in the middle of the second half, he somehow managed to squeeze a powerful shot inches to the right of the keeper and inches inside the post to assure Schalke didn’t leave the game with a draw.
One of the most-obvious solutions to this is supplying Huntelaar with a striking buddy, and in the form of Franco Di Santo, Huntelaar not only has a striker taller than him, but is faster and slightly more agile. DiSanto’s performance against Mainz was his best in a Schalke kit, and tonight will truly test him when he goes into his first European competition since his numbered days at Chelsea five years ago.
Breitenreiter playing two up top will be a key element in Schalke’s attack against a resilient APOEL side.
3) Goretzka and Meyer should be on the same side
Schalke youth products Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer, neither quite yet having reached 20 years of age, were electric last Sunday. The chemistry they shared was evident throughout the time both were on the pitch. Their stringing one-touch passes, give-and-go’s, and overall positional awareness seemed like a dream for Schalke fans who feel their midfield has been disconnected from the attack for too long since the Roberto di Matteo days.
Against APOEL, playing these two on the same side of the pitch would be brilliant from Breitenreiter. Giving Geis the nod to play in the midfield behind Eric Maxim Choupo Moting would give the youngsters the chance to develop consistency, and if APOEL’s history in European competition repeats itself tonight, they’ll sit deep and wait for mistakes. The two were nearly flawless against Mainz and could open the defense up and repent counter attacks and begin their own with ease.
4) The right fullbacks
Schalke purchased two new right backs over the summer: Brazilian fullback Junior Caicara and experienced German fullback Sascha Riether. If we go off of form, Caicara should be starting at right back. If we go off of form between the two competing Schalke left backs — Dennis Aogo and Sead Kolasinac — Aogo would be the obvious choice.
Aogo has been terrific for Schalke thus far and has been a standout in every game he’s played. According to whoscored.com, he’s been Schalke’s sixthbest player after four games in the Bundesliga.
So, overall, the picks for fullback going into the first European game should be Aogo on the left and Caicara on the right.
5) Experimentation might help for the match against Stuttgart
Schalke will be playing two games in four days, and both are away. The players will be understandably exhausted once they arrive in Stuttgart Saturday morning, and the idea of a tired side going into the fifth game of the Bundesliga should spur Breitenreiter to experiment a bit with the Schalke side travelling to Cyprus.
Some ideas are to use youth academy players. If Höwedes cannot start tonight, then instead of slotting Roman Neustadter in the back, implementing Kaan Ayhan into the squad could do wonders. Both he and Geis are wonderful dead-ball experts, and Ayhan has yet to truly string double-digit playing minutes so far under the new manager.
Another could be in the wings. Instead of starting Choupo Moting, why not start Sydney Sam? The two share similar traits, and although Sam is significantly less of an air threat, his pace and dribbling ability is, of an quality almost no one in the Bundesliga possesses. It would be wise to give him ample playing time against the Cyprus side.
Finally comes an odd ball: Hojbjerg subbing in for Goretzka. Although the latter should start for sure, the new loanee would be granted an opportunity to impress. Perhaps a 60 – 70th minute substitution could work for him. Giving 20-30 minutes for your first game for a club is usually the best option.
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