Gelsenkirchen - He may not have had the best of starts after taking over at FC Schalke 04 as the winter break approached, but the Royal Blues have kept faith in head coach Jens Keller and are now reaping the rewards.
Höwedes: "Tough act to follow"
Entering the business end of the 2012/13 season, Schalke are in a promising position to repeat last year's feat of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. Following a run of five wins in their last six, die Knappen now have a chance to close the gap on third-placed Bayer 04 Leverkusen to just one point, as they host their rivals on Saturday.
Times, however, haven't always been as good to the Gelsenkirchen-based club since Keller's appointment in mid-December. The DFB Cup exit at home to 1. FSV Mainz 05 was followed by a single win from the opening five domestic fixtures in the wake of club legend Huub Stevens' departure, a streak of form that saw Schalke slip into mid-table obscurity.
"The coach had a rather tough act to follow," admitted S04 captain Benedikt Höwedes, who was quick to point out that despite those difficult first weeks, the atmosphere within the Schalke camp always remained positive. "The team was never thrown off course," the twelve-time international said. "We've always worked really well together." Keller also stressed that, after the latest performances in particular, his side "have been showing that they've adapted well".
No looking back
A successful UEFA Champions League campaign, in which Schalke saw off the likes of Arsenal FC, Olympiacos FC and Montpellier HSC before falling short against Galatasaray SK, has given the Royal Blues a taste of performing in Europe's premier club competition. "We desperate want to reach the Champions League," said Romanian striker Ciprian Marica. "Victory against Leverkusen would therefore play a major role and I'm sure the coach will find the right words."
Having lost 2-0 to Leverkusen on Matchday 12, Marica, who sealed Schalke's 2-0 victory at SV Werder Bremen last weekend, is set to face fierce competition for a starting berth in the return fixture. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar made a return to training during midweek after a month on the sidelines and feels there's little reason to dwell on previous results. "That's in the past, we're only looking ahead now." A slogan that could easily be adopted by Schalke in a greater context considering their recent ascent up the standings.