FC Schalke 04 coach Huub Stevens insisted his side are not scared as Athletic Club come calling in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League quarter-final tie, but he admits to being a little confused. Which is the real Athletic – the side that beat Manchester United FC in the last 16 or the one languishing 11th in the Liga?
The Spanish outfit are among a host of teams eclipsing their domestic travails with impressive European adventures this season, Olympique de Marseille and Chelsea FC included. They slipped into the bottom half of the table after Sunday's 1-1 draw at home to struggling Real Sporting de Gijón, a stark contrast to ten days earlier when they completed a stunning 5-3 aggregate victory against the English champions.
"They have incredible quality – you don't win matches against United without it," observed Stevens, whose team rose to third in the Bundesliga with a 2-0 win against Bayer 04 Leverkusen at the weekend. "They are a good side, playing typical Spanish football, but while we always have respect we are not scared. That said, even if we can make our qualities count I don't know what the result will be. I just don't know how strong Athletic really are."
Schalke winger Julian Draxler is expecting Thursday's visitors to be at their best. "As is customary with Spanish sides, they have incredible build-up play, with quick, low passing. In Llorente up front they have a player who is also strong in the air." Of course, Schalke have a target man of their own in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, scorer of 14 goals in his last nine games: "You get the feeling that no matter where you play the ball, Hunter will be there and score. It's not luck, it is instinct and awareness."
Llorente has been struggling with a knock but is expected to play in Gelsenkirchen as coach Marcelo Bielsa says it is all hands to the pump. "We will play our best available XI. We are not thinking about resting anyone ahead of Saturday's match against Barcelona," the 56-year-old said. "We will go into the match hopeful of prevailing here. It will not be easy, but we are looking forward to the atmosphere. The opportunity of playing in stadiums like this is why you take part in these competitions."
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