After the disappointing Premiership-weekend we are returning to the Champions League where things look much brighter. To keep it that way, we must take advantage of our home soil and beat our visitors from Germany to keep the perfect run going and secure top spot in the group which should provide us an easier First Knockout Round match (although we saw last season that top spot in the group doesn’t guarantee you an easy opponent).
It is much easier to say than do – Schalke 04 are arguably the strongest opponent in the group with a lot of talent in attack with likes of Farfan, Afellay, Huntelaar and Holtby. Our defense has failed to keep a clean sheet ever since Week 3 in the Premiership (when we won at Anfield) and both matches in the Champions League we had at least 45 minutes in which we were outplayed by Montpellier and Olympiacos.
Schalke will enter the clash at the Emirates in a much better mood than we do. They won against their arch-rivals and reigning champions Borussia Dortmund away 2-1. Granted, Borussia Dortmund had problems with injuries (Goetze, Gundogan and Blaszczykowsky were out) but that doesn’t diminish the joy of victory over their fierce rivals.
There are several connections between Arsenal and Schalke. We played against the German outfit in 2001-02, one of our favourite seasons. We progressed from the first group stage winning at home 3-2 and losing 1-3 away against Schalke in the process. Our defeat came in the last round when we already knew we were through as the runners-up (Panathinaikos won the group). Both teams won their last trophy in the past decade – Arsenal won the FA Cup in 2005, Schalke won the German Cup in 2002. However, when it comes to winning domestic championships, Schalke’s drought is more serious than Arsenal’s – Schalke were champions of Germany in 1958. It is interesting that the biggest successes of both clubs in recent history are linked with Jens Lehmann.
The German goalkeeper was a Schalke hero in the 1997 UEFA Cup final against Inter Milan – he saved penalties from Ivan Zamorano and Aaron Winter in the shootout that Schalke won 4-1. 7 years later Lehmann was a member of Les Invincibles. There are also connections of today’s Schalke players with Arsenal – Ibrahim Afellay, Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Lewis Holtby all linked with Arsenal.
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Both teams had heart-breaking moments in the recent past. We all know how we lost the championships in 2003 or 2008. Schalke lost their championship in 2001 in a bizarre fashion – Schalke and Bayern were leveled on top of the table with Schalke being ahead on goal-difference until the very last minute of the championship. HSV had a 1-0 lead against Bayern until the last minute of the match when ex-Schalke goalkeeper Schober conceded an indirect free-kick by taking the ball in his hand passed back to him by his team-mate. Effenberg made a short pass to Patrik Andersson who scored the championship-winning goal for Bayern. Another pinch of salt in Schalke fans wounds is the fact that they won both matches against Bayern (3-2 and 3-1) and still was edged out by the Bavarians.
There is another kind of link between Arsenal and Schalke – both clubs were given unflattering connections in certain newspaper lists: Schalke were marked as the favourite club of Adolf Hitler while the same “papers” enlisted Osama Bin Laden and Carlos as Arsenal fans.
Tomorrow, the No.1 enemy will probably be Klaas Jan Huntelaar. If there is something called a “false nine”, then this Dutchman should be called “The Nine”. He is a central forward born to score goals and there were very few players more prolific than he was last season. Huntelaar was scoring goals for fun, 48 times in 48 matches for Schalke in 2011-12 speaks for itself. Our defenders must not leave him alone for a second while our full-backs must take care of the supply that will mostly go down the flanks from Farfan and Afellay.
Huntelaar had rather disappointing spells at Real Madrid and Milan before joining The Royal Blues but it seems that he is prepared for another shot at a big European club, a club that is bigger than Schalke. Huntelaar can make choices on his own since his contract is set to expire in summer of 2013. He will probably bear in mind that he is going to be 30 next summer and this could be his last chance to prove he can succeed at one of the biggest European clubs. His destiny could be linked with the one of Llorente since both of them are wanted by English clubs and Juventus. Another flaw in his career is his international career. He was left out of the Holland national team for World Cup 2006 despite scoring 33 goals in 31 matches for Ajax in Eredivisie (while, for example, Ryan Babel was called upon) while at EURO 2008 he played only one match (he scored against Romania) despite scoring 33 goals in Eredivisie again and being on the score-sheet in every international friendly before EURO. He didn’t use the opportunities in WC 2010 and EURO 2012 scoring only once in seven matches. If we close down Afellay and Farfan, Huntelaar will have problems to find chances since he is more a fox-in-the-box-type than a forward who can make chances for himself out of nothing. Our defense shouldn’t do anything to help him to do so and that will require much better performance from Thomas Vermaelen than in matches against Chelsea, Olympiacos and Norwich. Tranquillo Barnetta can pose a danger as well – he is like a army-knife from his country: sharp and versatile. It is expected that the Swiss will start from the bench.
Their back-line is weaker than their attacking line-up and that should be taken advantage of. The good news is that we have a player that scored in both of his fixtures against Schalke last season – Lukas Podolski for Cologne. Poldi scored in both Champions’ League fixtures so far as well as Gervinho, while Giroud made assists in both games. We need a victory tomorrow because 1) we need to bounce back from the Norwich disaster and 2) we would put one hand on securing top spot in our Champions’ League group. A draw would mean much more to Schalke while a defeat might even compromise our qualification for the Knockout Stage.
Let’s hope we will avoid unpleasant surprises, we have had enough of those for this season.