Preparation for the first of two games that could define Schalke's season has hardly been ideal after the 4-0 mauling at the Volkswagen Arena and yet another knee injury to striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Yet despite a depleted squad and an indifferent start to the campaign, there is still cause for optimism that the Bundesliga’s fourth-best side according to last year’s final standings will be part of the group stage draw in Monaco on 29 August.
Keller: No fear
Schalke’s road has never been without its bumps in recent times. After a difficult start to Jens Keller's tenure, the 42-year-old led the club to a fourth-place finish and the play-off round of the Champions League with a final-day win at SC Freiburg back in May. Having lost at home to VfB Stuttgart the week before, the pressure was on the Royal Blues, and they responded. Keller is adamant his team will do so again.
“You’re always under pressure at Schalke, but the players have shown they can cope with it,” he said calmly in his pre-match press conference. “We play in the best league in the world, we came fourth last year and we want to achieve our objective of reaching the group phase. PAOK are a good side but we know our own qualities and we’re optimistic we can make it.”
Höwedes puts Stevens sentiment aside
Club captain Benedikt Höwedes adopted a similarly confident tone, declaring that he had ignored what the media had been writing in the build-up to the game. “I’ve avoided reading the papers. We’ve put the [Wolfsburg] game behind us, and now we just want to focus on Wednesday,” he said.
The Germany international will be reunited with former coach, and Keller’s predecessor, Huub Stevens when the clubs meet. Stevens’ is a respected figure in Gelsenkirchen after leading the club to UEFA Cup glory in 1997, a feat for which he was affectionately christened ‘coach of the century’ by the fans. Höwedes admitted he was looking forward to seeing his former mentor but insisted that what happens on the pitch would take priority.
“Huub was the coach of the century here and the fans will look forward to seeing him. But the fact is that this is Schalke against PAOK, not Schalke against Huub Stevens. It will be nice to see him again but we have to try to win the game.”
Schalke: Hildebrand - Uchida, Santana, Höwedes, Fuchs - Höger, Jones - Farfan, Draxler, Clemens - Szalai
PAOK: Jacobo - Kitsiou, Katsouranis, Miguel Vitor, Lino - Lazar, Tziolis - Oliseh, Lucas, Stoch - Salpingidis