Respite over for determined Royal Blues

Doha - With the Rückrunde fast approaching there was no rest for the re-energised as less than 24 hours after landing in Doha, Qatar, for their ten-day training camp, FC Schalke 04 were knuckling down in their first training session at The Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence.

Schalke in at the deep end

“I’m looking forward to a full programme of preparations which we’ll battle through together as a team,” said Royal Blues’ captain

Benedikt Höwedes

, who is expecting to be put through his paces alongside his colleagues during the comprehensive mid-season warm-up. “We want to work on several facets of our game and fine-tune our tactics, all whilst attaining peak fitness.”

It’s the fourth time Schalke have set up camp in Qatar during the Bundesliga’s winter break and, while sporting director Horst Heldt was quick to praise the “great facilities and incredible hospitality“, head coach Roberto Di Matteo’s focus revolved around matters on the pitch. “We’ll be working on our organisation and conditioning during our time in Qatar,“ said the 44-year-old. Having prioritised plugging the gaps in Schalke’s porous backline after taking over from Jens Keller in October, the Schaffhausen native is looking to make use of the opportunity to truly drill home his vision of perfecting a footballing gameplan. “For me the most important thing will be to ensure that our style of play and movements become second nature,” explained Di Matteo. Certain to put that to the test are

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar

’s former club AFC Ajax, who will provide stern opposition for the Royal Blues in their first of two friendlies on Saturday (10 January). In his two-year stint with the reigning Dutch titleholders between 2006 and 2008, the veteran striker bagged an impressive 76 goals in 92 appearances.

Lengthy list of absentees

Di Matteo will have two players back at his disposal for both encounters, the second of which is against 19-time Qatari champions Al-Merrikh SC, with

Kevin-Prince Boateng

and Leon Goretzka both making the trip to Doha after missing the back end of the


through injury.

However, top scorer

Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting

is on Africa Cup of Nations duty with Cameroon, while no less than seven first-team regulars, including Jan Kirchhoff, Sead Kolasinac, Julian Draxler, Jefferson Farfan and

Atsuto Uchida

, remained in Gelsenkirchen to continue their recovery from injury. With UEFA Champions League aspirations very much in their own hands, the hard grind continues for Schalke when they host Hannover 96 on Matchday 18 and there’s no doubting they’ll be keen to hit the ground running after returning from Qatar.