October 24, 2017

PAOK 2 Schalke 04 3. Schalke reach Champions League but make hard work of it

After the 1-1 draw of the first leg, a trip to Greece is not exactly what any team would fancy, especially when the prize is to reach the Champions League group stages and the financial windfall that comes with it. However, Jens Keller’s men had the slight advantage that PAOK’s Stadio Toumbas was to be without fans due to a ban imposed by UEFA after crowd trouble in last season’s Europa League. No doubt had it been packed with 28,000 roaring Greeks, the result could have been different.

Flashes of brilliance cannot overshadow poor performance

It wasn’t a pretty match by Schalke by any means. Despite enjoying a 60-40 possession over their Greek rivals in the first half, Schalke’s performance left a lot to be desired; lack of ideas, lack of attacking moves and PAOK’s tight and excellent defence resulted in only one shot on goal in the first half hour. Schalke took the lead just before half-time with a move that came from the difference in quality between the sides; there is no arguing that, on paper, die Königsblauen are much better than PAOK and it took Keller’s men 43 minutes for that superiority to show, with an excellent long ball and a movements behind the PAOK lines that ended with Ádám Szalai poking the ball into the net after a square pass by Atsuto Uchida.

Again, in the second half, Schalke’s second goal was a touch of class that PAOK couldn’t cope with. Max Meyer’s fantastic through ball was one Julian Draxler himself would have been proud of and Draxler himself latched onto it, took a touch past goalkeeper Jacobo and finished from a tight angle. World-class pass, world-class finish, quality that had gone amiss for the whole half which was making Schalke’s game difficult, especially being down to ten men and at 1-1. Schalke’s third goal was again Draxler showing his class, beating his man on the wing and squaring to Szalai who, once again, was at the right place at the right time to poke the ball into the net and put the tie beyond Greek reach.

All in all, despite the flashes of quality from Schalke’s better players, this result cannot overshadow their overall performance and that they scraped past a team that was way inferior to them. There is no doubt that Schalke have some excellent players in their squad and that, on their day, they can produce some top-class football but the flashes were few and far between and Schalke’s success this season will depend largely on the attacking players, seeing as the defending was once again shambolic.

Defending, still a big problem

In five competitive matches so far this season, Schalke have conceded 12 goals. An average of 2.4 goals conceded per game is not a number that any team looking to compete at the top of any league and in Europe’s biggest club competition can afford or will want to have. With all due respect to PAOK, they are not a team that would make life difficult to any of the teams seeded in the first, second or possibly third pot of the Champions League, and yet they made Schalke’s defence look slow and static once again. One would have thought that a clean sheet would have been a possibility and that would have restored the defence’s confidence but, once again, Schalke finish a match with question marks hovering over their defenders.

Keller has gone with the central-defensive pairings of Höwedes-Matip and Höwedes-Santana in the league so far. Today he went with the latter and Stefanos Athanasiadis’ goal was once again a showing of poor marking. Santana was in no-man’s land and the through ball allowed the Greek striker to score with nobody around him and his marker trotting behind him. For the second goal, PAOK once again founds things too easy as a simple chipped ball from the edge of the area was flicked back by Kostas Katsouranis with Marco Höger not even challenging for it and Hildebrand beaten by a looping ball. Kießling & co. must be rubbing their hands waiting for the weekend.

Jermaine Jones must keep his head

Many times has Jermaine Jones’ aggressiveness, fighting spirit and roughness been discussed and today we saw the worst side of it. At 1-1 and vying for an all-important Champions League spot, on top of having collected a cheap yellow card early in the game an with his side just having conceded, going in late on an opposition player after having lost a ball in the middle of the park is not exactly what the midfielder manual tells you to do. However, Jermaine Jones doesn’t go by the book and he picked up his seventh red card of his Schalke career at the worst possible time. With PAOK pressing after their equaliser, you need experienced players with cool heads on the field. Had Draxler not scored soon after the red card, fingers might have been pointing towards Jones at the end of the match. With players like Roman Neustädter on the bench, perhaps Jermaine Jones’ must realise that the time has come to either keep a cool head or lose his place. Keller should also know that and stern words will probably be heading towards the American’s way right now.

Ádám Szalai and Max Meyer: the bright spots

In the absence of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Ádám Szalai had a lot to prove. Despite his 8m€ move from Mainz in the summer, it was clear that Szalai would not be starting if Huntelaar was fit. His chance in the first team has come rather early and he has not disappointed, with 3 goals in 2 starts. Admittedly, his role in today’s game overall wasn’t a big one but he was in the right place at the right time twice to score two hugely important goals that not only mean that Schalke play in this season’s Champions League group stages but also that they’re guaranteed a huge money windfall, that will no doubt please Horst Heldt and those above him. The alternative to Huntelaar last season was Ciprian Marica or Teemu Pukki, which hardly filled Schalke fans with confidence. This year, injuries to Huntelaar won’t be met with so much grief as Szalai has so far proven to be an excellent replacement for the Dutchman.

On 61 minutes and at 1-1, Keller took off the ineffective Christian Clemens and brought on teenager Max Meyer. Having played only scarcely last season, it might have seemed that bringing on more experienced players like Tranquillo Barnetta or poachers like Teemu Pukki as they were chasing the game would have made more sense. However, within five minutes, it was Meyer’s fantastic through ball to Draxler for the second goal that took the wind out of PAOK’s sails, after they seemed to be on a roll and a goal from them a lot more likely than one from Schalke. Sadly, Meyer’s participation in today’s match was barely a cameo, as he was taken off for Neustädter just 9 minutes after coming on to fill in for Jones’ moment of madness. Perhaps taking off Farfán, who had endured a torrid time so far, would have made more sense but it was young Meyer who drew the short stick. However, his short performance will no doubt leave honey on the lips of Schalke fans.

Conclusion

By no means was it an easy affair in the first place but Schalke could have had it a lot tougher than PAOK Thessaloniki. Schalke are undoubtedly one of the top 15 sides in Europe but they haven’t been playing like it this season so far. It’s quite obvious that their defence needs restructuring and maybe Jens Keller should think about giving Ralf Fährmann or Lars Unnerstall a chance, as Timo Hildebrand leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, Schalke fans won’t mind one bit and they are back in the Champions League, which was the objective in the first place. Most likely being second seeds, they will be expected to go through in their group but their performances, especially their defensive ones, will have to improve if they want any chance of that happening.

Header courtesy of facebook.com/S04

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Aleix Gwilliam

Is a 27-year-old living in Barcelona who gets more pleasure from watching German lower-league football than from going to watch his hometown team at the Camp Nou every other week. Passionate about European football, its history and culture, you can follow him on Twitter at @AleixGwilliam

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