Schalke academy graduates Mesut Özil, Sead Kolasinac and Joel Matip (l.-r.) are set to feature in this week's European finals. - © getty
Schalke academy graduates Mesut Özil, Sead Kolasinac and Joel Matip (l.-r.) are set to feature in this week's European finals. - © getty
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Mesut Özil, Sead Kolasinac and Joel Matip: Arsenal and Liverpool's European finalists, made in Schalke

They will be looking to strike European gold at opposite ends of the continent, yet there are rich footballing foundations linking Arsenal duo Mesut Özil and Sead Kolasinac with Liverpool defender Joel Matip: all three were forged in the Gelsenkirchen mines of Schalke.

Özil and Kolasinac will be gunning for UEFA Europa League glory with Arsenal on Wednesday night as they make the 2,500-mile trip to face London rivals Chelsea in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. And three days later, Liverpool and Matip will be in Madrid to take on Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Champions League showpiece. All three potential European champions earned their stripes in Schalke's renowned Knappenschmiede youth academy.

Under the watchful eye of legendary coach Norbert Elgert, many rough diamonds have been polished into genuine footballing gems in Gelsenkirchen, the former mining centre which is nicknamed the 'city of a thousand fires'. Özil, Kolasinac and Matip are among a host of red-hot talents to have been tempered in perhaps Germany's most famous foundry, along with fellow graduates Manuel Neuer, Leon Goretzka, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler and Thilo Kehrer.

Indeed, a strong Bundesliga influence will loom large at both the Baku Olympic Stadium and the Estadio Metropolitano this week. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs all boast other talents who have lit up the German top flight, including Roberto Firmino, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Heung-min Son. And Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp hardly needs an introduction after guiding Borussia Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012, as well as narrowly losing the 2013 Champions League final to Bayern Munich.

Norbert Elgert (c.) has developed a host of world-class players at Schalke, guiding the club's young guns to three of their four U19 Bundesliga titles in 2006, 2012 and 2015. - 2015 Getty Images

Now 30, Özil was just 16 when he joined the Schalke U19s from Rot-Weiss Essen, with his graceful movement and elegant passing style drawing comparisons with France legend Zinedine Zidane. After scoring 10 goals to help the Royal Blues conquer the U19 Bundesliga crown in 2005/06, he was promoted to the first team in 2006/07, making 19 appearances as his side were pipped to the Bundesliga title by VfB Stuttgart.

Later described by Horst Hrubesch as Germany's answer to Lionel Messi, Özil went from strength to strength, with a superb start to 2007/08 earning him a January move to Werder Bremen. A Bundesliga runner-up again in his first half-season with the Green-Whites, the supremely talented midfielder lifted his first major trophy in 2008/09, scoring the only goal as Bremen defeated Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB Cup final.

Since leaving Germany in 2010, Özil has gone on to enjoy success in Spain and England, winning the Copa del Rey and La Liga with Real Madrid and three FA Cups with Arsenal. There was also the small matter of lifting the 2014 FIFA World Cup with Die Mannschaft in Brazil, where he was one of Joachim Löw's key lieutenants. Having also won the 2009 UEFA European U21 Championship with Germany, he is now looking to win his first continental trophy at club level, especially after losing the final of the old UEFA Cup with Bremen a decade ago.

A DFB Cup winner with Werder Bremen in 2009 at just 20, Mesut Özil was one of four Schalke youth academy products to win the 2014 FIFA World Cup, along with Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes and Julian Draxler. - 2009 Getty Images

Özil's Arsenal teammate Kolasinac had a far more measured rise to the top after joining the Schalke academy from Stuttgart in January 2011. Just like Özil, he enabled the Royal Blues to secure the U19 Bundesliga title before moving up into the senior squad, contributing an impressive six goals and seven assists from left-back during the regular season. He even wore the captain's armband in the final against Bayern as Schalke picked up their third U19 title – and the second of Elgert's tenure after Özil's efforts in 2006.

For many years it looked as though the battling Bosnia and Herzegovina defender would never truly live up to his potential. Kolasinac played a bit-part role in 2012/13, only becoming a regular starter in the latter months of the campaign, and was then sidelined by injury at the start of 2013/14. A cruciate ligament rupture on the opening day of 2014/15 kept him out for eight months, while he was forced to share left-back duties with Dennis Aogo the following season. It was really only in 2016/17 – four years after turning pro – that he began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Kolasinac turned out to be silver lining of a disappointing campaign under Markus Weinzierl, emerging as one of the German top flight's best left-backs despite Schalke finishing 10th. The Karlsruhe native had only scored once in his four previous Bundesliga seasons, but underlined his growing attacking threat with goals against Darmstadt, RB Leipzig and Mainz, not to mention bagging five assists. Physically imposing, and boasting electric pace to match his fighting spirit, 'the Bulldozer' soon caught Arsenal's eye and was on his way to the Emirates Stadium in summer 2017.

His only trophy with the Gunners came a few months later in the Charity Shield, which just happened to be against Chelsea, Wednesday's Europa League final opponents. After replacing Per Mertesacker early on, Kolasinac scored on his debut to take the game to a penalty shoot-out, which Arsenal won 4-1. The 25-year-old will no doubt be dreaming of a repeat performance in Baku.

"This way to Europa League glory!" - Sead Kolasinac emerged as one of the Bundesliga's best defenders with Schalke in 2016/17, and was even selected at left-back in the Team of the Season. - 2016 Getty Images

As he prepares for the Champions League final, meanwhile, Liverpool defender Matip will look back on fond memories of his last trip to the Spanish capital with boyhood club Schalke. In the 2014/15 Champions League, the Royal Blues came desperately close to knocking holders Real Madrid out of the competition with a famous 4-3 win at the Santiago Bernabeu, but failed to get the fifth goal they needed after a 2-0 reverse on home soil.

The Bochum-born Cameroon international was on the Schalke books by the tender age of nine, and worked his way up through the ranks before breaking into the first-team squad in late 2009. A centre-back by trade, he can also slot in at full-back or in defensive midfield, and even spent six months playing up front for Elgert in his U19 days. A true Royal Blue, he made over 250 appearances for the club and won the DFB Cup in 2011, having helped Schalke keep a clean sheet against Bayern in their 1-0 semi-final victory.

Matip traded the Veltins-Arena for Anfield in July 2016 as Klopp looked to address Liverpool's defensive frailties. The 27-year-old has since seen off competition from Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren to emerge as one half of a world-class centre-back partnership alongside the imposing Virgil van Dijk, who recently described Matip's performances this season as "unbelievable". Keeping the likes of Son, Lucas and Harry Kane quiet in Madrid on Saturday is certainly a worthy challenge for a would-be European champion.

Joel Matip (c.) was still at Schalke when they lifted their last major trophy, the 2010/11 DFB Cup. - imago sportfotodienst

Whatever the outcome of the two all-English European showpieces, one man is bound to be enjoying a glass or two of champagne back in Gelsenkirchen this week. Schalke youth guru Elgert already has a fine collection of World Cup winners after Germany's success in 2014, and he will now be toasting a selection of continental champions from among his former charges. With his help they came out of the mines and made it to the top of the mountain.

Andy Smith