London - FC Schalke 04’s Timo Hildebrand couldn’t stop apologising. On his Facebook page, on television, to the media in the mixed zone after the game. “A huge sorry to the team, to the fans, to the club,” wrote the 34-year-old after his mistake gifted Samuel Eto’o the first goal in an eventual 3-0 win for Chelsea FC.

It was the second time in as many weeks that the Blues of London had prevailed 3-0 against their Royal counterparts from Gelsenkirchen. In both cases, however, it would be churlish to point at individual errors as the cause of Schalke’s downfall, as Chelsea's experience proved the value of having eleven UEFA Champions League winners amongst your ranks. Schalke had none, but all is not lost.

Missed chances, not mistakes


“Mistakes happen to us all,” said Dennis Aogo. “Timo’s error wasn’t the reason we lost.” That was a view seconded by club captain Benedikt Höwedes. “Timo was unlucky that he dithered for a moment too long, this sort of thing happens in football.” Hildebrand was off the hook. “I apologised to the team at half-time,” he ruminated. “To their credit, the lads tried to build me up again.”

Although Hildebrand’s mistake was perhaps the turning point, any discerning observer of the Group E tie would have noticed Schalke’s strong start. The pressing, the physicality, the intensity. They were a side on a mission, and for 31 minutes their mission looked less impossible than many had foreseen. Shifting the blame to Hildebrand would have been the easy option, such were the early chances Schalke spurned. “We had three great opportunities early on,” said Christian Fuchs. “We unfortunately couldn’t put them away.”

Experience has many faces


With their fans making their presence felt off the pitch, Julian Draxler was, as ever, at the heart of Schalke’s early dominance on it. His fifth-minute shot trickled agonisingly wide of Petr Cech’s right-hand post, while a 40-yard dash a minute later to set-up Adam Szalai should have seen the Hungarian at least hit the target. “You’ve got to convert the gilt-edged chances against Chelsea,” said Aogo.

In a similar manner to the 3-0 defeat in the Veltins Arena, Schalke never looked out of their depth. At Stamford Bridge, they had seven attempts on goal to Chelsea’s ten, however, the hosts tellingly registered ninety per cent of their opportunities on target. Two such shots resulted in goals for Eto’o, scoring for his ninth separate season in the competition. “We knew about Chelsea’s strengths,” noted Fuchs, referring to their experience and highlighted in Eto’o’s opportunistic opener. “A fox of a goal,” Blues’ boss Jose Mourinho called it.

Gambling on success


The result’s consequences weren’t as far-reaching as many of the travelling fans would have feared though. FC Basel 1893’s injury-time equaliser to rescue a point at home to FC Steaua Bucuresti meant Schalke remained in second place with six points from four games. “Two good results take us into the last 16,” Aogo enthused. “That’s our motivation.”

He spoke for the team, whose performance, particularly in the early patches, demonstrated that a trip to Bucharest and then the visit of Basel should hold no fear. “We hold the cards in our own hands,” said Fuchs, before going on to expand upon his poker metaphor. “We don’t want to be gambling in this group, we’re going to qualify through our own wins.” Doing that would certainly forgive Hildebrand his errors.

Daniel Thacker

Check out this fascinating one-on-one with Schalke's future King Julian Draxler, exclusively on the official Bundesliga YouTube channel: