Schalke go from one abyss to another

Posted by Ross Dunbar

"Welcome to Hell" is synonymous with the cauldron of football on the European side of Bosporus - and is hardly an ideal location for Jens Keller to save his coaching reputation.

The 42-year-old's spell as interim manager of FC Schalke 04 has been calamitous following the dismissal of Dutch coach Huub Stevens in December. Keller's six-game tenure has seen Schalke effectively concede their Champions League place for next season - barring a remarkable triumph in May - and oversee their hapless exit from the DFB Pokal in his first match in charge.

- Yilmaz: New-look Galatasaray ready to roar
- Huntelaar looks to lead Schalke revival

Schalke's collapse can be traced back to a bitter 3-2 defeat to TSG Hoffenheim in November, with Stevens' side conceding a late goal to the Bundesliga strugglers. This might seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of Schalke's campaign but before that loss in Sinsheim, Stevens had just one defeat - against FC Bayern - in 17 matches, including a win over archrival Borussia Dortmund.

For one reason or another, Schalke plunged into crisis mode in November with two wins from the last 10 games under the Dutch coach and Stevens - serving at the club for the second time - was sacked having "lost the dressing room" in the wake of a 3-1 defeat to SC Freiburg at the Veltins Arena.

Keller and sporting director Horst Heldt have not endeared themselves to the supporters with a fans group producing the "Schalke Crisis [B.S.] Bingo" which mocks consistent excuses from the management team when results are below expectations. Keller's only previous stint in first-team coaching came in a 13-game spell at Stuttgart, during which he hardly impressed and has only managed one win in six games.

That period has seen Schalke ship 14 goals - add another five if you include the hammering in the Middle East friendly to Bayern - and their single victory, a 5-4 win over Hannover, was a match in the balance for long spells. Their trip to Munich aside, Schalke were firmly expected to take maximum points against FC Augsurg (0-0) and Greuther Furth (1-2), the latter a particularly humbling defeat in Gelsenkirchen against the league's bottom-placed team, who had managed only one win before February.

The travelling party to Turkey includes 17-year-old Schalke starlet Max Meyer, who capped his league debut with an assist for flying Michel Bastos. Not involved, though, are Astuto Uchida, Christoph Moritz and Ibrahim Afellay. Although Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has passed a late fitness test having recovered from a burst eye vessel.

Galatasaray might have been seen as a favourable tie for the Bundesliga side, but their late January business sent shockwaves throughout the Schalke-supporting community. The Turkish giants have added former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba and ex-Inter star Wesley Snejider as they look to become the first club outside Europe's 'big-five' to win the competition in a decade.

The Istanbul giants lead the way in the Turkish SuperLig under charismatic coach Fatih Terim - revered at Galatasaray for his European success in a previous stint with the club. The Turkish side qualified with the joint-lowest number of goals in the group stages and have won two from 11 against German opposition at home.

As Drogba scored on his Galatasaray debut, Schalke regained some credibility with a 2-2 draw in Mainz on Saturday, with winter signing Bastos recording a brace. The Royal Blues were in the bottom half of the table before the weekend and have sneaked into ninth with the point away from home.

It was hardly a glamorous affair, with Keller starting without a natural central-striker on Saturday, although, according to members of the first team, it proved their mental strength and resilience having come from behind on two occasions.

"[Saturday] was an important step," S04 midfielder Roman Neustadter said. "It has been discussed a lot in recent weeks about the coach and it is essential that the team brings the right attitude to the pitch, because in Istanbul heart and passion are to be in high demand. . . It is important to explain to the players that they have done a lot well in Mainz."

Heldt also was questioned on his the future of Keller, but backed his interim coach and maintained he would remain in the dugout until the end of the season. Of course, an exit from the Champions League at this stage is unthinkable for Schalke, and Heldt might be forced to reassess his decision if the Royal Blues end up out of the tournament by Easter.

Schalke's 50th European Cup match should be a cause for celebration; a socio-football phenomenon from the industrial heartland of Germany which has been perennial underachievers, domestically and on the continent.

The essence of their season lies on a gritty, tireless performance in one of the most intimidating environments in European football. The Royal Blue need to rise to the challenge and beat more than just the 11 in Yellow and Red on the pitch.

ESPN Conversations