If Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson or Rafael Benitez could hand-pick their clubs’ quarter-final opponents in Friday’s Champions League draw, it’s likely they would take Schalke.
Avram Grant might be less inclined to revisit Germany after Chelsea’s backs-to-the-wall 0-0 draw at the Veltins Arena last November, during which the Premiership side were put under serious pressure by Mirko Slomka’s unfashionable side. But fashions change with the season and Schalke’s daggy squares could become geek chic with two more displays of the like that eventually ousted Porto after 210 minutes and penalties.
Die Knappen (The Miners) showed they can dig in as they held out for 85 minutes in the second leg at the Dragao last week, before Lisandro’s wonder goal extended the tie. That performance was built on outstanding displays from several old heads and three young players who seem destined for stardom.
Manuel Neuer is the 21-year-old keeper who most German fans believe will lay claim to the Nationalmannschaft jersey for the foreseeable future and beyond. Born in Gelsenkirchen, the youth team product is in peak form as his reaction save to deny Tarik Sektioui in the first half against Porto showed. More impressive though was his spectacular spreadeagle stop to deny the same player in the second half — a save which left 50,000 home fans in stunned disbelief. Neuer went on to save two penalties in the shoot-out and book Schalke’s progress into the last eight, but he didn’t rest on his laurels and was again superb back in Bundesliga action at the weekend.
Jermaine Jones, now 26, is the former teen idol of German football who is now finally realising his potential after a career beset with controversy and injuries. The long-legged midfielder’s all-round display over both legs against Porto will surely have impressed scouts for those big clubs who love to stockpile central midfield players. Jones can be equally constructive as destructive to enemy attacks and the son of an American soldier patrolled the areas where Porto’s creative hub of Lucho Gonzalez and Ricardo Quaresma dared to roam. This came two weeks after he had played the key pass in the move which led to Kevin Kuranyi’s vital first leg winner — so don’t call this Jones ‘Junior’.
Brazilian right back Rafinha can lay claim to being the best in his position in the Champions League this term. The 22-year-old’s run and shot in the first leg of the last 32 tie set up Kuranyi and his defensive work was flawless in Portugal. Rafinha’s ability to time his bursts forward from deep to devastating effect is reminiscent of his idol Cafu and has unsurprisingly attracted interest — most notably from Liverpool. Quaresma, Porto’s flashy but penetrating wide boy was shut down completely in both legs and there are not many who can say they have done that.
Ally to these young talents the experience of Mladen Krystajic, Marcelo Bordon, Fabian Ernst and Kuranyi and you can see why Schalke have got where they are — flying largely under the radar.
Last season they missed out on the Bundesliga title on the last day of the campaign and, although they have been knocked out of the title race this term, their cup pedigree is noteworthy.
Slomka’s side reached the Uefa Cup semi-finals in 2006 and won the German League Cup a year later. The Champions League is another level entirely, but they won’t concede many goals — will a Premiership club be left to pay the penalty for overconfidence ?