FC Schalke 04 can secure their place in the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League for the second time in three seasons by defeating Olympiacos FC on Wednesday.
Four points against regular European contenders Arsenal FC, coupled with domestic form that has elevated them to second place in the Bundesliga, has shown that this side is a force to be reckoned with at home and abroad.
But how has that been possible? What is making the Royal Blues so strong? A solid defence is the basis for success in football and this is underlined by Schalke, who boast the joint third meanest rearguard in the Bundesliga and the best in Group B. That is typical of Huub Stevens, a coach who, with his team leading 1-0 going into the second leg of the 1997 UEFA Cup final against FC Internazionale Milano, coined the phrase: "The zero [conceded goals] must remain!"
In Austrian international Christian Fuchs they have an attacking left-back who has assisted in plenty of goals since arriving from 1. FSV Mainz 05 in 2011, and young defenders like Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Atsuto Uchida and Joel Matip have profited from first-team football in recent years. The back four is anchored around captain and Germany defender Benedikt Höwedes.
Schalke have managed to build a team of international quality in almost every position. Lewis Holtby has admirably filled the void left by Raúl González's departure, providing goals and assists, while new signing Roman Neustädter has played his way into the German national team this term. Julian Draxler, Jefferson Farfán and Ibrahim Afellay (on loan from FC Barcelona) have shown their prowess on the wings, and in Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Stevens possesses the kind of target man any top team needs in order to flourish.
Last but not least, this side is benefiting from a wealth of European action in recent campaigns. Schalke drew great confidence from their semi-final run in 2010/11, when only Manchester United FC proved a bridge too far in the penultimate round, after ousting Valencia CF and holders Inter. That season, they were not able to successfully juggle the demands of league and European football (they finished 14th), something they are absolutely capable of now.
This is another sign of how this squad has matured. Having lifted the German Cup in 2011, they qualified for last season's UEFA Europa League, where they reached the quarter-finals, bowing out to eventual runners-up Athletic Club. Can they go all way? Probably not, but they are capable for one or two upsets should they reach the knockout stage, which I am sure they will.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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