Cologne - Two of the teams who marched into 2014/15 with the highest self-imposed expectations go head-to-head on Matchday 12, on the back of singularly contrasting starts to the campaign.
Difficult start for Di Matteo
While visitors VfL Wolfsburg can be more than satisfied with their current second place in the standings, turbulence-prone hosts FC Schalke 04 have been enduring another sticky opening that leaves them nine points shy of their would-be rivals for a UEFA Champions League berth. Should Wolfsburg get the better of them on Saturday afternoon, the Royal Blues will have a real struggle on their hands to get anywhere within touching distance of the top.
Schalke parted company with head coach Jens Keller after a 2-1 defeat at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim in early October that left them eleventh in the table at the end of Matchday 7. Four games into the reign of Robert Di Matteo they are still eleventh, having won both their home games and lost twice on the road so far under Keller’s successor. The second of those defeats, at struggling SC Freiburg, left the former Italy international acknowledging that over the coming weeks there was “a lot of work to be done” on the team, from back to front.
After seeing his charges make a bright start to the contest, Di Matteo tellingly added he had assumed “we’d be able to keep playing in the second half the way we had in the first.” In addition to working on the build-up from the back and supply to the forwards, the general fitness level of the squad is evidently an ongoing area of concern for the coach. Midfielder Marco Höger effectively confirmed as much at a training session during the international break, saying “for the players who are here at the moment, it’s an opportunity to do a bit of catching-up.”
To do a much-needed bit of catching-up in the league – not to mention successfully negotiate the group phase of the Champions League – the Royal Blues will also have to shore up a defence that leaked seven goals in their two most recent games on the main European stage against Sporting Clube de Portugal. Roman Neustädter, a regular in the middle of the park for Schalke this season, believes the team have already improved at the back under Di Matteo and puts the recent concessions down in large part to “basic, silly mistakes that normally just shouldn’t happen.”
Wolves flying high
Silly mistakes are certainly not something they can afford against Wolfsburg this weekend. The Wolves are on a six-game winning streak in the Bundesliga and in the last three of those have hit the opposition for nine without reply. Apart from a single-goal slip-up at Hertha on Matchday 5, their only other Bundesliga loss came on the opening day in Munich, where they gave Bayern a real run for their money before going down 2-1.
VfL’s return to the international arena is gaining momentum as well, with back-to-back wins against FK Krasnodar lifting them to second in Group H of the UEFA Europa League. The 5-1 home victory over the Russian outfit also saw Aaron Hunt and Nicklas Bendtner bag a welcome brace apiece off the bench, accelerating the settling-in process for both summer signings after a few teething problems.
Bendtner’s late double had the added bonus of being scored by a recognised striker, something of a rarity at Wolfsburg of late – although, as head coach Dieter Hecking put it, “everyone's a scoring threat for us, so that’s something I can live with.” The unpredictable Bendtner appears to have rediscovered his shooting boots, scoring twice for Denmark in midweek as they chalked up a vital 3-1 win away to Serbia, while Ivan Perisic earned Croatia a share of the spoils against Italy in a game that saw fellow Wolf Ivica Olic make his 100th international appearance.
Heldt remains optimistic
Kevin De Bruyne meanwhile returns to the domestic fray eager to get back in the winning groove at Schalke’s expense following Belgium’s frustrating goalless home draw with Wales. The 23-year-old midfielder has been in blistering form this season and is out on his own as the Bundesliga’s top provider, with nine assists to his name already. De Bruyne’s one goal of the campaign so far came in the 4-0 win at VfB Stuttgart on Matchday 10, where the in-form Perisic chipped in with a brace and homegrown talent Robin Knoche hit the net as well.
The young central defender has an additional reason to take to the pitch in Gelsenkirchen on a high, fresh from his first senior call-up for Germany in Tuesday’s in Vigo. In short, spirits are justifiably buoyant in Wolfsburg at the moment and they head to the Ruhr district looking better placed to come away with the spoils than for many a year.
For their part, the hosts’ need for a win is even greater. Sporting director Horst Heldt remains confident nonetheless that Schalke can and will still achieve their pre-season targets, “just as we always have over the past few years – however much of a close-run thing it’s been.” To that end, the team with their roots in the local mining industry are going to have to start by putting in an extra-special shift at the coalface on Saturday.