Doha - "After our poor finish to the first half of the season, we want to put ourselves in a better frame of mind, start playing with more confidence and get back on track," FC Schalke 04 captain Benedikt Höwedes had said upon the team’s arrival in Doha, Qatar, their training base for the winter break.
Yet on the evidence of Monday’s 5-0 friendly reverse against Bundesliga rivals FC Bayern Munich, getting the team ‘back on track’ is proving no easy task ahead of the league's resumption on 18 January.
The winter break came as a welcome relief to Schalke after a troubling end to 2012, which saw them fall to a lowly seventh place in the Bundesliga table and former head coach Huub Stevens dismissed. The defeat to Bayern has burst any bubble of optimism, though, and despite sporting director Horst Held playing down the scoreline, for the players it was a depressing experience.
"A lot of us didn’t sleep much after the game," revealed a concerned Roman Neustädter. After a promising start to the game, Schalke suddenly found themselves 2-0 down and despite their best efforts, Bayern found the net another three times to leave Jens Keller’s team reeling in the Middle Eastern heat.
"We had a clear tactical plan," said Neustädter. "We pressed really well in the first few minutes, but then after that a few of us probably wanted to push up too high too soon. We gave Bayern space that they exploited. It’s difficult coming back from 2-0 down in a situation like that against a team like theirs. This isn’t a game that we can put out of our minds just like that. We’re all extremely disappointed with the way we performed."
Team-mate Christian Fuchs was similarly critical of the performance, but insisted the focus remains on preparing for the upcoming Bundesliga clash with Hannover 96, which is little more than a week away. "We all know that what we did wasn’t enough, but we can’t bury our heads in the sand or wallow in self-pity." said the 27-year-old Austrian international.
Of further concern to the club will be the fitness of a number of first-team members. Jermaine Jones hobbled off with an ankle injury against Bayern, while Ibrahim Afellay will miss the next two months with a thigh problem and Christoph Moritz faces an even longer lay-off with cruciate ligament damage. After their initial respite, Schalke, it seems, are counting the cost - physically and mentally - of this year's winter break ahead of a crucial second half to the season.