Freiburg - Jens Keller pronounced himself "immensely proud of the team" after FC Shalke 04 had clinched the 2-1 victory at SC Freiburg on the final matchday which secured fourth place and with it, a shot at the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League.
"A party the players deserve"
The 42-year-old head coach, who replaced Huub Stevens just ahead of the winter break, was the first to admit his side's performance had been far from their best, but at the end of a tumultuous campaign both for himself and Schalke, the final outcome was all that mattered in this one: “Given everything we've been through since January, this is a huge relief.”
The 4,000 fans who accompanied the Royal Blues down to the Black Forest shared that view, with several hundred staying on to revel along with the home fans - who themselves, while missing out on the Champions League shot that would have been theirs with a win, can nonethless look forward to competing in the UEFA Europa League, having booked their return to the international stage for the first time in a decade. "It's a party the players deserve," said S04 sporting director Horst Heldt. "The victory was hugely important for the team, the club and the fans. I'm delighted for everyone connected with Schalke."
Keller, meanwhile, felt no need to apologise for having denied Freiburg that Champions League place, pointing out that his side "created some clear-cut chances" and that they themselves furthermore "haven't always been rewarded for playing decent football."
Moment of magic
Schalke’s football in this particular high-stakes encounter was far from breathtaking, but there were brief glimpses of individual class. Defensive coordinator Benedikt Höwedes was practically flawless, while Jermaine Jones was authoritative as ever in midfield.
Another moment of excellence from fast-rising Royal Blue star Julian Draxler set the visitors on the path to victory. Seizing on a momentary lapse in concentration at the back, the 19-year-old attacking midfielder left home custodian Oliver Baumann no chance with his 20th-minute finish.
A Julian Schuster own-goal eventually proved decisive for Schalke after Jonathan Schmid had equalised for the hosts and, though there may have been more than an element of good fortune about their winner, Heldt was pleased with the performance from the players and particularly the coach he himself promoted from the youth ranks back in December: “Jens prepared the team excellently. This game was like a final and the passion they showed out on the pitch reflected that.”