Gelsenkirchen - Having kicked off the second half of the season with four straight wins, FC Schalke 04 are hoping to further cement their place in the top four with another victory when they welcome 1. FSV Mainz 05 to the Veltins Arena on Friday night (kick-off 20:30 CET).
Building up a head of steam
"We're on a roll at the moment," said S04 head coach Jens Keller at Thursday’s press conference, yet despite their , the Royal Blues are taking nothing for granted against a Mainz side enjoying a .
The only time Schalke have ever grabbed five consecutive wins at the start of a Rückrunde was under former boss Huub Stevens during the 2001/02 campaign, but Keller, the man who took over from the Dutchman in 2012, feels his charges are on the cusp of recreating that feat. "The players have been incredibly focused in training,” explained the 43-year-old. “They're very keen and at the same time having a lot of fun too. The positive mood in and around the club is doing the team a world of good."
Only league leaders FC Bayern München have have a better record than the Royal Blues post-Christmas and questions surrounding their UEFA Champions League credentials seem to have been answered by victories over VfL Wolfsburg and more recently Bayer 04 Leverkusen. "The current form table makes pleasant reading at the moment, but nothing more than that,” admitted Keller. “The task now is to kick on. Getting a positive result against Mainz is what counts, but we need to be extremely careful."
Schalke's winning streak isn’t the only source of good news at present, with the squad’s injuries woes starting to show signs of improvement, most notably in the case of wonderkid Julian Draxler. "Draxler has been an ever-present in training this week," said Keller, who is expecting the Germany international to make his comeback on Friday against “a good team with excellent attacking players.”
Keller’s counterpart Thomas Tuchel could be without one of those attacking players on Friday with South Korean international Joo-Ho Park, who has chipped in with a goal and assist since the season’s restart, struggling to recover from a thigh injury. “It’s going to be tight,” admitted the Mainz 05 boss. “We’ll make a decision very late as to whether he’ll be able to play or not.”
Park or no Park, the 40-year-old head coach knows his side are the underdogs for both the encounter with Schalke and next week's match against fellow Champions League representatives Leverkusen. “We believe we’re capable of executing two top performances and know that we’ll need to as well,” admitted Tuchel, who’s side have already picked up as many wins (ten) as they did in the whole of last season. “We’re well aware of our role for these two games.”
However, Mainz are starting to shrug off their also-rans tag. Their current form - the 05ers have lost just one of their last seven - has propelled them into up the league and into contention for a UEFA Europa League qualifying berth. “We’ve engineered the perfect situation for ourselves to be able to travel to Schalke without any pressure, allowing us to concentrate purely on our performance,” concluded Tuchel, who said he’d take ninth place “right now” if it was offered to him in an interview with GOAL! The Bundesliga Magazine. Nevertheless, a win on Friday and a top-eight finish isby no means out of the question.
Schalke: Fährmann - Höwedes, Felipe Santana, Matip, Kolasinac - K.-P. Boateng, Neustädter - Farfan, Meyer, Draxler - Huntelaar
Mainz: Karius - Pospech, Bell, Noveski, Junior Diaz - Geis - Moritz, Malli - Koo - N. Müller, Okazaki