Gelsenkirchen - “We found it tricky at the start of the game, which perhaps was due to playing in midweek,” said Max Meyer after FC Schalke 04’s second big home win in five days. A sorry SC Freiburg were dispatched 2-0, and the encounter was very much a case of no Julian Draxler, no Benedikt Höwedes, no problem for the Royal-Blues.
Draxler and Höwedes (who was suspended anyway) had both limped off during Wednesday’s 2-0 victory in the UEFA Champions League over FC Basel 1893, which paved the way to the competition's last 16 and an aristocratic encounter with Real Madrid CF. Despite having to do with two of their key players however, Schalke managed to overcome a stubborn Freiburg side on Sunday, which Höwedes’ replacement at centre-half, Felipe Santana, described as “not our best, but one which brought three points which is the main thing”.
Indeed, centre-half was the focus throughout as Schalke defended well, limiting a guileless Freiburg to only eight scoring attempts, three of which were aimless headers. Coach Jens Keller, perhaps strangely for those with little idea of the context, threw on a third centre-half with two minutes to play: Kyriakos Papadopoulos. The Greek made his return after 383 days out injured, and was greeted as warmly as a new signing by the sold-out Veltins Arena crowd. “It was pure goosebumps,” the 21-year-old fan favourite said afterwards. “Just playing again makes me very, very happy.”
'Papa' slotted into a side which looked settled - if clearly playing below their best. Jefferson Farfan was once again the star man, whipping in a customarily wicked corner for Nicholas Höfler’s own-goal moments before the half-time break and then slotting home his fourth penalty and sixth goal of the season. “He certainly put it away coolly,” commented an admiring Meyer.
Meyer was another who stepped up in the absence of a key player. As part of an attacking midfield trio alongside Farfan and Kevin-Prince Boateng, but shorn of Germany international Draxler, the 18-year-old shone. His direct running injected shot after shot of adrenaline into an otherwise leaden-legged side - it was he who drew the foul for the penalty and he possesses the quality of inspiration so usually overlooked in a statistical analysis. “It was a deserved success after a battling display,” Meyer added.
His captain for the day, Boateng, echoed such comments. “It was a battle of a match and we won the battle,” said the 26-year-old. “Freiburg were compact but for finding the way through we deserved victory.” The Ghanaian demonstrated his value to Schalke by taking the responsibility that comes with the armband and showing that, despite the flashy exterior, there lies an extremely motivated warrior underneath the summer signing.
Europe the target
For someone looking from the outside then, and wondering about Papadopoulos’ return, Schalke were a coherent, fluid outfit. As Meyer and Boateng personify, the mix between youth and experience is spot on, and with game-changers like Farfan and Draxler within the ranks there is firepower to go with solidity.
Trailing fourth place by five points following Borussia Mönchengladbach's goalless draw at 1. FSV Mainz 05 on Matchday 16, Schalke now have their sights set firmly on Champions League qualification. Given a positive outcome on the concluding 2013 Bundesliga weekend, they could sit in fifth during the Winter Break. As the dust has settled on a big week, it seems like the side is starting to as well.