Cologne/Doha - Sitting fifth in the Bundesliga table, FC Schalke 04 enjoyed a good, if not spectacular Hinrunde.
Consistency will be the key to the Royal Blues fulfilling their remit of finishing in the automatic UEFA Champions League places, and to that end, Schalke have jetted out to warmer climes in Doha, Qatar, for the fourth year running as they plan their Rückrunde assault.
Di Matteo's charges will have the very best equipment to work with as they shake off the winter-break cobwebs in the Middle Eastern sun. The Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence, Schalke's home from 6-16 January, boasts seven football pitches, tennis courts, running tracks, various sports halls and weights rooms, and best of all, the 290,000m² Aspire Sports Hall, one of the world's largest indoor sports venues.
The players will also have the luxury of staying in The Torch. "Rising to height of 300 metres and with a 360-degree panoramic view over Doha, The Torch is a paradise for sophisticated travellers, sport enthusiasts and businessmen as well as those in search of wellness and relaxation. The hotel is presently the highest building in Qatar and the pride of Doha's majestic sporting city, the Aspire Zone," says website lhw.com.
Ajax on the agenda
Two friendlies are lined up for die Knappen ahead of their return to Bundesliga action at home to Hannover 96 on 31 January. AFC Ajax are the opposition on 10 January, meaning a reunion with some former colleagues for Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who played for the Dutch giants between 2006 and 2008.
After that comes a clash against Sudanese Al-Merrikh SC at the Jassim Bin stadium, home of local side Al-Sadd. With a capacity of 14,000 and renowned for its electric atmosphere, the arena is also the unofficial home stadium of the Qatari national team.
The national football league has been in existence since 1963 and in more recent times has attracted some of football's biggest names. Former Real Madrid CF and Schalke legend Raul played for Al Sadd between 2012 and 2014, while current FC Bayern München boss Pep Guardiola represented Al Ahly between 2003 and 2005. The 22nd FIFA World Cup is also set to take place in Qatar in 2022.