Cologne – It was a pressure-cooker atmosphere at the Veltins Arena on Matchday 33 as FC Schalke 04 sought the points they needed to qualify for Europe next season.
They succeeded, beating SC Paderborn 1-0 thanks to a late Uwe Hünemeier own goal, yet the emotions were decidedly mixed. Relief and ecstasy fused into one as Schalke stumbled across the finish line with a game to spare.
By their own admission, the second half of the 2014/15 season may not go down as one of the most memorable in the club's history. Five defeats and six draws in 16 games saw the Royal Blues' hopes of a renewed UEFA Champions League qualification fade too quickly for their liking. However, a chink of light did return just prior to the final whistle on Saturday.
"In the end, these three points were important," said coach Roberto Di Matteo. "That was our objective, and we reached it. We were under a lot of pressure and you could sense that." That pressure had built up as Schalke's place in Europe next season was placed in jeopardy by recent results.
"We've managed to salvage something from a second half of the season which really wasn't up to par," admitted goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann, caught somewhere between a smile and a frown. He was not the only one. "We're delighted to have got these three points, but at the same time, our joy is kept in check somewhat," added Joel Matip. "It was a very peculiar atmosphere."
For a club which had qualified for the UEFA Champions League in each of the past three seasons, and always made it through to the knockout stages of Europe's elite club competition – consequently counting themselves among Europe's top 16 clubs – finishing fifth, which they can secure with just a point against Hamburger SV on Matchday 34, could be regarded as a step back.
When the jury does return to summarise Schalke's season, however, it will certainly be a positive deliberation. Finishing ahead of local rivals Borussia Dortmund will give the fans Revier bragging rights which they have lacked since the summer of 2010.
And the most poignant memory will be of their outstanding 4-3 win at Real Madrid CF, the night they served the defending European champions a lesson in their own back yard. With that in mind, they head to Hamburg on Matchday 34 for one last hurrah. "I can promise we'll give it everything one more time," said Di Matteo. "We owe that to our fans."