Jermaine Jones remembers well his initial forays into the UEFA Champions League. The year was 2004, and the United States international was trying to break into the starting XI of Bayer Leverkusen. On Sept. 28, he came on as a substitute in a 4-2 loss to Dynamo Kiev, and made his first Champions League start three weeks later in a 3-1 victory over Roma.
"It was a great feeling," Jones said via telephone of those appearances. "But I was so nervous. And then the game starts and you see all the big players and they are playing in this game. It's amazing."
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These days, Jones is a regular with Schalke 04 and the 31-year-old is very much a grizzled veteran. He has made mor than 150 top-flight appearances in Germany and England, while playing 25 times for the U.S. And if he takes the field in Schalke's upcoming Round of 16 game against Galatasaray on Feb. 20, it will mark his 20th appearance in the Champions League. That said, time hasn't dimmed his appreciation for playing in the most prestigious club competition in the world. "For me, you know all of the teams that don't play in the Champions League, all of the players, they are at home watching the games," Jones said. "You know when you go out on the pitch and you hear the music, it's unbelievable. I think it's a special night."
One aspect that has changed for Jones is his approach both before and during games. He notes that when Schalke is going up against one of the bigger teams in the competition, the pregame nerves that he once felt are now evident on the faces of the younger players. But experience has taught Jones how to handle the emotions that accompany Champions League nights. "I think when you start the first games, you have all this energy and you say, 'Ah, you need to run more. It's a nice night, an unbelievable game,'" he said. "But I think after five, six games, you can keep your focus. It's not like you're running around happy, 'Ah, I'm playing in the Champions League!' Now it's like any other game."
There are a few subtle differences of course. Jones feels that the speed of play is actually faster in the Bundesliga, but in the Champions League mistakes are punished more ruthlessly. "In the Champions League, you make three mistakes, you [concede] two goals," he said.
That is why there is such a premium placed on a player's ability to concentrate, and Jones pointed to a particular incident where he realized how to properly channel his thoughts. During the 2007-08 edition of the Champions League, Schalke found itself up against FC Porto in the Round of 16. Schalke won the home leg 1-0, but then Porto prevailed by the same score in the return encounter, with Lisandro netting in the 86th minute. Extra time failed to produce a winner so the match went to penalties. Two brilliant saves from then-teammate Manuel Neuer put the Royal Blues up 3-1 after three rounds, and it was left to Jones to take the potential match-winning penalty.
"When I was walking from midfield to the box to take the penalty, in my head, there was so much," he said. "I was thinking, 'Ooh, what are you going to do now? You're nervous.' Then I thought, 'Take it like you do in training or any other game.'"
Jones went on to fire his shot in off the underside of the crossbar and Schalke was through to the quarterfinals. The Royal Blues ultimately fell to Barcelona 2-0 on aggregate, but the lesson stuck with Jones, and he is now focused on this year's edition. Schalke will face a Galatasaray side that has recently added midfielder Wesley Sneijder and forward Didier Drogba, both of whom have Champions League medals in their respective trophy cabinets. Jones is unfazed.
"We know that in Sneijder and Drogba, they are two great players, but while we have respect, we're not scared," he said.
After all of Jones' experience, that's precisely what one would expect.