Introduction – Against all Odds
There are certain draws that will always be considered more favorable than others in European tournaments. Clubs and supporters alike waited with bated breath to see who their side will face in the quarter finals of the Champions League this season. After Inter came back from behind to eliminate Bayern they could not have gotten a more desirable draw than the only German club left in European competition, Schalke. Arguably the most inexperienced side in the competition, Schalke have seemingly punched above their weight by reaching the Quarterfinals and are even undergoing a recent managerial change. Schalke have also struggled domestically this season and are statistically still not safe from relegation. In that sense, the outcome seemed more a formality than anything else.
Leonardo’s Inter came into this match after a rather humbling 3-0 loss to city rivals AC Milan over the weekend while Schalke got a controversial yet important win against St. Pauli this past Friday. Despite domestic form however, Inter were heavy favorites going into this match and the only question seemed to be score line. To be fair, even Schalke supporters remained realistic about the match, evidenced by the few Schalke travelers to Italy.
Leonardo positioned Chivu in central defense because of Lucio’s absence. As a result, captain and utility man supreme Zanetti started at left back. Stankovic and Milito also came in for Pandev and the cup-tied Pazzini. Ragnick replaced the absent Metzelder and Kluge with Jurado and Matip.
Schalke play high up the pitch
Ragnick is known for his proclivity for attacking football but that kind of exuberance can be the undoing of inexperienced sides in Europe, especially against a team as compact, experienced and disciplined as Inter. Going against the grain, Ragnick instructed his side to do just that. From the get go, Schalke took the initiative and was proactive in their play. Baumjohan and Jurado played higher than their positions initially suggested. Jurado started in central midfield alongside Papadopoulos and moving up could have left his 19-year-old midfield partner at the whim of Inter’s strong midfield trio. Instead of hesitating however, the Spaniard pushed up quite often throughout the match. That along with Raul’s tendency to drop back and help his midfield had the effect of squeezing Inter’s midfield from both sides. Stankovic, Cambiasso and Motta found it increasingly difficult to control the match because of this.
Over the last couple of seasons Inter’s Maicon has distinguished himself as one of the best attacking fullbacks of his generation. His dashing runs have become a trademark and opposition fullbacks step out of their defense at their own peril. That is exactly what Ralf Ragnick instructed Uchida and Sarpei to do. In another daring tactical maneuver, Ragnick fought fire with fire by utilizing Uchida and Sarpei as high up the pitch as possible and as Schalke’s only width. Their doing so went a long way in keeping the likes of Maicon and Zanetti in check as neither got behind the opposition’s defense as they are accustomed to doing. The decision comes rather easily when considering that Inter don’t really play with wingers so Ragnick did not feel compelled to use them either, Farfan aside.
Leonardo and Ragnick’s penchant for attacking football made it a very open game in the first half and the 2-2 half-time score line was a reflection of how willing both sides were to go at each other. Defense seemed second priority to both sides. The game became a much more cerebral affair in the second half however.
After Schalke took the 3-2 lead early in the second half Inter became visibly shaken and began pushing up more for an equalizer. Suffice to say, they did not expect to go behind in that manner and felt the pressure early on. That pressure increased after Rannocchia’s rather unfortunate own goal. The two goals pretty much turned the game in Schalke’s favor as Inter never looked comfortable both chasing the game and keeping Schalke from adding to their lead.
From the beginning it did not seem that either Leonardo or the Inter players expected such a reaction from this Schalke side. Perhaps it was a matter of underestimating the opposition and believing the pre-match odd making. Leonardo did not appear to have an answer to what was happening on the field and his side became sloppier in the second half as they were rushing to make up the numbers.
It must be said that Schalke’s work in midfield was crucial in this result. Ragnick’s men worked overtime. Edu and Raul for example played very deep and acted almost as proxy midfielders, adding to the pressure already exerted by their teammates. Curious to note was Sneijder’s repositioning in the second half. The playmaker operates primarily in the middle but as the game progressed he drifted out wide to the left more and more while the ever-dangerous Eto’o came inside. It could be that this was a specific instruction from Leonardo but the outcome was far from desirable.
Edu tripled Schake’s lead with a brilliant turn on 75 minutes to put the game beyond Inter’s reach and put his side in an ideal position to advance to the semi finals. Once again, it left Inter scrambling for concrete ideas and made the defending champions look rather hapless.
Schalke patient and defensively disciplined
Magath’s differences with Schalke’s management may have been his undoing but the mark he left on this team was still very much evidenced in their performance against Inter. The current Wolfsburg coach is renowned for building his sides on the pillars of physical fitness and a solid defensive foundation. And even though Magath was probably watching this game from his new home in Wolfsburg, those two ingredients were key in their impressive win.
Unlike Bayern who looked absolutely phased after Inter’s equalizer at the Allianz Arena in the last round, Schalke kept their nerves and drove on. That persistence paid off on 5 different occasions and the strong mentality on display was key in executing such initiative. Some Schalke supporters are pleased to see the back of Magath but the discipline he instilled cannot be overlooked in setting this team up in the Champions League. The trust he instilled in young players like Papadopoulos and Matip along with purchases like Jurado, Uchida and the ever-important Raul has gone a long way.
Moreover, Schalke have become one of the more defensively disciplined sides in both the Bundesliga and the Champions League this season. Players like Neuer and Höwedes have stood out in particular. Against Inter, the pair showed their qualities again and made it quite obvious why Bayern is pursuing them.
Conclusion – What to expect in the second leg?
The beauty of a two legged affair is the nature of its’ unpredictability. Despite a home loss, elimination is not a foregone conclusion for the Italians. Inter lost their home leg against Bayern as well only to rally from behind and oust Bayern on their own ground. The odds are now stacked against the defending champions for a change and Leonardo will have to get the performance of the season out of his squad to advance.
The score line sets up what should be an eventful second leg though. Inter no doubt will come out to score, which they must in order to progress. The question is how Schalke will set up. Will they attack as is expected from a side coached by Ragnick or will they shore up shop and play out the tie by using their away goal advantage? One is obviously riskier than the other but the stakes are high and Schalke have a chance to make club history, as they’ve never reached the semi finals of this competition. Either way, the second leg is a safe bet as any to guarantee goals for the netural.
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