Munich - The outlook was bleak at the turn of the year. Languishing – by their usually high standards – in seventh position, the form of the teams who ended the year above them led to the question being asked as to how FC Schalke 04 were going to recover in the second half of the season.
Their subscription to a place in the UEFA Champions League looked under threat, but after only two games of the Rückrunde, a renewal over the summer is a lot more likely.
A look at the team which ended 2013 and the one which started 2014 reveals only one real change, but one of great significance. Star striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's name featured on the team sheet to face Hamburger SV on Matchday 18, and then against VfL Wolfsburg last weekend. With the Dutchman back in tow, the Royal Blues are back in business.
"Our priority is qualifying for the Champions League," said the Hunter to Sport Bild. "We could still even finish second, but let's just take things from game to game." That approach has served Schalke well since they returned from their Qatar winter training camp aware that there was only one direction their season would be permitted to take in 2014.
"We want to climb another few places," said captain Benedikt Höwedes while soaking up the sun in the Middle East. It was a far cry from the black clouds and icy temperatures back in Gelsenkirchen, yet he and his team-mates have managed to bring some of the more hospitable atmosphere, if not weather, back with them. "I think we've laid the foundations for a successful second half of the season," added the 25-year-old.
With six points out of a possible six in 2014, they are building solidly on said foundations. Jefferson Farfan seems set to be the wing menace he has proven he can be, Kevin-Prince Boateng is now able to emerge from Huntelaar's shadows rather than bearing the burden of leading the attack by himself. Behind them, Max Meyer is delivering on his potential, and Julian Draxler is on the road to recovery.
Many will envy the stock coach Jens Keller has at his disposal, and now that he seems to have got them rolling, opponents are running scared. In their past two games, Schalke have covered over 118km, compared to a season's average of 115km. Success may not only be measured by how far you run, but going the extra mile is clearly one reason why they are rising up the table. Felipe Santana is another reason: with the former Borussia Dortmund stopper on the field, Schalke have conceded only once as a result of aerial attempts, compared to seven without him.
A change in between the sticks has allowed goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann to impress, conceding on average every 126 minutes compared to the one every 45 minutes let in by Timo Hildebrand. All good statistics, but still no real substance, according to the Schalke custodian. "We shouldn't read too much into the start we've made," he said. Indeed, all the numbers will only be added up in May, when Schalke hope they will equate to a place in the Champions League once again.