Munich – The big news of the week from the Schalke 04 camp may have been the confirmation of 's departure for Tottenham Hotspur at the end of the season but, as with the rest of their Bundesliga rivals, preparations for the league restart in a fortnight's time constitute the most pressing priority for the Royal Blues at the moment.
New start under Keller
To that end, Schalke are currently in the midst of a winter training camp in Doha, not a million miles away from Bundesliga pacesetters Bayern Munich – whom, indeed, they go up against in a friendly on Tuesday evening (8 January, 17:00 CET) in the Qatari capital.
The Gelsenkirchen outfit ended a hitherto successful 2012 on a distinctly turbulent note. They parted company with "Coach of the Century" Huub Stevens in the wake of Matchday 17's 3-1 home loss to SC Freiburg, the culmination of a six-game winless streak that saw them slide out of the top three and down towards mid-table.
Former U-17 coach Jens Keller has been tasked with turning things around and, speaking after the first few practice sessions in Doha, club captain confirmed that the new man in the hot seat and his assistant Sven Hübscher have made a "very positive impression" thus far. "Obviously, there have been a few changes to the routine and that has led to a bit of a sense of things being in turnaround," the 24-year-old Germany international acknowledged.
"Get back on track"
The focus in Keller's first training block has been on defensive play off the ball - "very tough going, but that's as it should be at a training camp," Höwedes noted: "We ran through a lot of routines out on the pitch, it was really good." The skipper had praise aplenty too for the "perfect conditions" the team have encountered in Doha. "The pitches are an absolute dream and the hotel's fantastic. All-in-all, the whole complex is pretty sensational."
All of which leaves the players and coaching staff to get on with the vital task in hand. "We want to keep developing as a unit," Höwedes emphasised: "For one thing, it's about taking a step forward on the tactical front. But after our poor finish to the first season-half, we also want to put ourselves in a better frame of mind, start playing with more confidence and get back on track."
Afellay fit to continue, Holtby committed
That, in the skipper's view, boils down to returning to the mix "at the top of the Bundesliga... We've been doing well in the Champions League this season. We're enjoying that immensely and want to get back to that kind of form - and to do so, we're going to be putting in a lot more hard work in preparation." Among those continuing to play his part will be . The Dutch attacking midfielder had to break off Saturday morning training after injuring his ankle and calf in a tussle, but the knock proved less serious than initially feared.
Lewis Holtby meanwhile has spoken publicly for the first time about his imminent summer exit from Gelsenkirchen. The move to the Premier League, the Schalke no. 10 admitted, is the "fulfilment of a childhood dream," and "an opportunity I had to seize... It will be good for my overall development." First things first, though, and Holtby stressed above all that "I've always been honest and authentic here... (and) I can assure the fans that I won't be easing off at all. I'll be giving it absolutely everything I've got until the very last second."