Schalke tops group after dominant display against APOEL Nicosia

A brace from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and a fine header from Joel Matip handed APOEL Nicosia a heavy defeat Thursday night in Cyprus, as Schalke started strongly its first foray into the Europa League since the 2011-2012 season.

For the first ten minutes, it was the home side who were more comfortable going forward, enjoying almost complete control of possession. However, APOEL’s returning issue of having no strong finisher continued to hamper them as the Cypriots developed good plays, but just couldn’t finish what they had started so well. This led to giveaways that eventually allowed Schalke into the game, and it was then the home side practically lost the match.

Max Meyer rocked the crossbar from 35 yards out as he trickled through a few defenders and set himself up nicely on the left flank. The ball only bounced back into play and was cleared out by APOEL’s defenders.

Minutes later, new signing Johannes Geis contributed his own long-shot and smashed into the cross bar after newly-signed APOEL keeper Boy Waterman got his fingertips on the ball, keeping it out for a corner kick from Schalke.

The resulting corner almost led to the opening goal as Matip failed to make any real connection to the threatening ball in from Geis.  The Royal Blues would only wait a few minutes, though, until their deserved  goal came through.

After Geis whipped in a strong, curling corner kick, Waterman charged out to attempt to clear the ball, and Matip punished the poor keeping by heading home the first goal of the match. The 28th minute goal made it the second consecutive match Matip headed in a corner provided by Geis.

Seven minutes later, Huntelaar continued the trend of long-shots, the only difference being his found the back of the net. As Waterman was slowly coming off his line, Huntelaar took a few touches from a great pass from Meyer and pulled the trigger from 30 yards out, the ball skidding low and away from the goalkeeper as it bulged in the net, making Schalke’s lead only more daunting for the home side to equal.

Yet, the game almost turned around for APOEL. Had Schalke goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann not made a brilliant point-blank save to deny Pieros Sotiriou as the first half was coming to a close, APOEL could have headed into the locker room with much more confidence.

As the second half kicked off, the proceedings mirrored that of the first half: Schalke in possession, Schalke attacking and APOEL waiting for the counter.

At the 60th minute, Leon Goretzka had his goal ruled offside, as his shot came inches close to Huntelaar four yards out. The referee rightly ruled so due to an unfair disadvantage Waterman would’ve suffered.

Twenty minutes from the final whistle, the best goal of the night came after Meyer charged down the left flank and beautifully picked out Huntelaar across the 18 yard box, and shot the ball hard into the corner first time. Huntelaar had a brace and gave the Royal Blues its 3-0 scoreline.

One of the biggest controversies came minutes later as APOEL’s Brazilian striker Vander was brought down in the penalty box by Matip. The enraged striker was right to be angry, as Matip clearly had interfered with a goal scoring opportunity by stepping on his foot, but due to him and his side’s theatrical antics throughout the match, the referee could only see it as a “Boy who cried wolf” situation, denying APOEL the chance to make the scoreline 3-1 with a spot kick.

Another controversial moment came at the 77th minute as APOEL’s Tomas De Vincenti was sent off after what appeared to be foul language directed at the referee before slamming the ball on the pitch after a call went against his side. However, anyone who was watching the match knew he had been mouthing off to the referee throughout the match. If was only a matter of time before his lack of discipline was punished, although the need for a red card instead of a yellow continues to be debatable.

In the end, though, it wouldn’t affect the match. Schalke played a relaxed remaining 15 minutes, knowing they had won the game.

Here are the top and bottom three players of the match

1) Leroy Sané – 9.25

Although he didn’t score a goal or provide an assist, the 19-year old demonstrated why he is one of the most promising young players in the Bundesliga: pace and attacking ability.

He was an absolute nightmare for APOEL’s left flank: he dribbled, ran past, and outsmarted defenders, and was an unpredictable player that they simply could not contain. His height led to winning three aerial balls throughout the match, he brilliantly cut out brewing attacks with his eight tackles and launched dozens of dribbles down the right flank.

Had Sané released some of those blistering plays to either Huntelaar or Di Santo throughout the match, the scoreline would be completely humbling against the Cypriots, and demonstrates he still has ways to go. However, his performances for Schalke thus far have been promising to what might be the break-through season in his career.

2) Max Meyer – 8.75

On the opposite side to Sané was a player of the similar age (he turns 20 Friday),  and of a very complimentary style to Sane. While Sané has the pace and dribbling, Meyer has the eye for deadly passes, and that’s why he’s many onlookers’ man of the match. His two assists to Huntelaar were absolute class.

After rattling the crossbar, Meyer began turning in one of his best performances in a Schalke kit. He completed 90% of his passes and provided two assists that cut defenders out of the equation. His second assist, where he held onto the ball to distract APOEL’s swarming defenders before laying off to an isolated Huntelaar, was astonishing.

3) Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – 8.75

Ever since Breitenreiter has taken reign over Schalke, Huntelaar has been scoring goals. After last night’s match, he has scored five goals for Schalke in their six matches in all competitions. That looks more like the Huntelaar that broke records three years ago when he became the Bundesliga’s highest goalscorer (only behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in goals scored that season).

He had three shots in the game, and two ended in the back of the net. Not since his side’s famous victory against Real Madrid has he had such a high conversion rate.

Schalke will fly to Stuttgart tomorrow to face a struggling VfB side Sunday.