FC Schalke 04 reached the UEFA Champions League knockout stages for the third time in six seasons and, having held off Arsenal FC to win Group B, look well placed to repeat their achievement of 2007/08, when they reached the quarter-finals. Indeed, so impressive have the German club been so far that a repeat of their run to the semi-finals two seasons ago is not out of the question.
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FC Schalke 04 paved the way for their progress to the knockout stages from matchday one with an impressive 2-1 victory away to Olympiacos FC. Momentum appeared to have been lost when Souleymane Camara scored in added time to earn Montpellier Hérault SC a point in Gelsenkirchen in their second outing. Though so often formidable at home, Schalke's last-16 berth was primarily the fruit of their efforts abroad, notably the 2-0 win at Arsenal FC on matchday three. Once more, they appeared to have undone all their good work when they went two goals behind at home to the English club but Huub Stevens' side showed plenty of character in pulling back to draw. That meant the hard-won 1-0 victory at home to Olympiacos on matchday five, courtesy of Christian Fuchs' first UEFA Champions League goal, sent Schalke through, top spot in Group B secured with a 1-1 draw at Montpellier.
If the opening victory in Greece set the tone, the 2-0 matchday three triumph at Arsenal, courtesy of goals from Dutch duo Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ibrahim Afellay, was the moment Schalke seized the intiative. Handing Arsenal a first defeat in 16 European home matches and their first loss to non-English opponents on home soil since 2003 was a considerable achievement in itself, but it also played a part in giving Schalke the belief that they could at least match if not better Arsène Wenger's men, even at 2-0 down on matchday four.
Though Lewis Holtby's creativity and poise shone through and Julian Draxler has showed more of his immense talent, it is difficult to argue that Huntelaar's contribution has not been decisive. The Dutch international forward contributed four goals in six appearances, scoring the winner at Olympiacos and, crucially, threw his team a lifeline by reducing their deficit in added time at the end of the first half at home to Arsenal. The goal completely changed the complexion of the game and transformed the atmosphere inside the stadium from despondency to justified optimism.
In Holtby and Draxler, Schalke are well and youthfully-equipped going forward, but it is centre-back Kyriakos Papadopoulos who remains the most impressive of the club's talented young guns. The 20-year-old shows fearsome determination and handled the daunting prospect of playing former club Olympiacos superbly.
Only Málaga CF, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus can also boast that they went through the group stage unbeaten.
"Why not, at 22 years old, play at the Santiago Bernabéu? That would be a dream."
Holtby epitomises Schalke's optimism in hoping for a round of 16 meeting with Real Madrid CF.
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