Freiburg - The MAGE SOLAR Stadion remains a happy hunting ground for FC Schalke 04. A year ago, the Royal Blues beat SC Freiburg to seal fourth spot on the final day of the 2012/13 season and qualify for the UEFA Champions League, and on Matchday 33 of the current campaign, another victory in the Black Forest has left them on the brink of a return to Europe’s premier club competition next season.
The champagne remains on ice for the moment, as the Gelsenkirchen outfit’s most recent success against die Breisgauer has not guaranteed automatic entry to next season’s Champions League, but a draw against struggling 1. FC Nürnberg next Saturday is all that is required to ensure Schalke join champions FC Bayern München and Ruhr rivals Borussia Dortmund as guaranteed guests at Europe’s top table in 2014/15.
“We still need one point, which we want to get against Nürnberg, and we will,” Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, scorer of Schalke’s second goal in Baden-Württemberg, told reporters after the final whistle. “We'll be playing at home and we're a force to be reckoned with there.” The Dutchman and his team are now three points clear of fourth-placed Bayer 04 Leverkusen going into the final weekend of the season, but coach Jens Keller sounded a note of caution following the victory.
We've taken the first step by ensuring at least a fourth-place finish,” said the former VfB Stuttgart coach, whose club also celebrated their 110th anniversary on Sunday. “It was a very impressive performance by my team and we thoroughly deserved the win [...] but we still can't be certain of qualifying automatically for the Champions League. It would be arrogant of us to think that and it wouldn't do us any good.”
Keller, who was “very impressed” with his players’ display in the 2-0 win, reserved special praise for one of the youngest members of his squad. “Kaan Ayhan had never played at full-back for us before and he puts in a performance like that - it's incredible," the 43-year-old said of the teenager, who was filling in for the suspended Sead Kolasinac. “I'm delighted for him.”
Ayhan also opened the scoring against Christian Streich’s team, and although he was taken off at half-time with mild concussion after a clash of heads, the 19-year-old is expected to be fit for the campaign's final day. One player who won’t be involved at the Veltins-Arena, however, is Huntelaar, who picked up his fifth yellow card of the season after leaping onto the fence behind the goal to celebrate with the travelling fans following his second-half strike. “It never entered my mind that I was at risk [of getting booked],” admitted the Dutch international. “When I scored I just went mad!”
Felipe Santana will also miss the game in Gelsenkirchen after receiving his marching orders for two bookings in the second half. Marco Höger, however, is likely to feature against Roger Prinzen’s team after making his long-awaited comeback from a knee injury on Saturday. “I was more nervous than on my Bundesliga debut,” said the former Alemannia Aachen player. “I’m very happy that my six-month injury lay-off is finally over.”
With two of his key players suspended and captain Benedikt Höwedes only recently returning to first-team training, Keller will be just as relieved to have Höger - as well as Bayern loanee Jan Kirchhoff, who was able to finally make his Royal Blues debut - back in the fold for Matchday 34. Whoever takes to the field at the Veltins Arena on Saturday, though, Keller remains confident in his players’ ability to get the job done against der Club. “As long as we stay focused on our work, I'm convinced we'll win our final match against Nürnberg.”