After missing out on the German title last May, coach Mirko Slomka is determined to give FC Schalke 04 fans a UEFA Champions League campaign to remember.
There is no doubt in Mirko Slomka's mind what makes FC Schalke 04 unique. "The fans' great passion for the club," he tells uefa.com. That passion was writ large in the faces of supporters last season as their team let the Bundesliga crown slip from their grasp at the last. It is 49 years since the club last won the German title but that wait seemed destined to come to an end when Schalke travelled to rivals BV Borussia Dortmund as leaders in the penultimate game. Victory and the title would almost certainly be theirs.
But Dortmund ran out 2-0 winners, opening the door for VfB Stuttgart who duly won the title on the final day. It was a heart-breaking climax, but Slomka believes the club have grown from the experience. "People here know sometimes you have to get over disappointments in sports and they don't abandon the club," he said. "Last season, we narrowly lost the championship, which our supporters had eagerly been waiting for since 1958. We were knocked off top spot on the penultimate day, but even so our popularity has grown even more. You rarely see that."
Schalke's popularity will grow even more should Slomka navigate his side through a difficult group in the UEFA Champions League. Schalke were eliminated from the group stage in both 2001/02 and 2005/06 and Slomka is now set on reaching the last 16 for the first time. Valencia CF are the German side's first opponents in Group B followed by Rosenberg BK and Chelsea FC. "Of course it will be difficult because Valencia reached the quarter-finals last season and were only narrowly eliminated by Chelsea. But they know it will not be easy to win at Schalke so I assume they will use a very defensive mind-frame."
Unlike some of their domestic title rivals, Schalke did not spend heavily over the summer. Playmaker Lincoln has left the club and many feel his creativity will be missed, particularly in Europe. The arrivals of Matthias Abel, Mimoun Azaouagh, Jermaine Jones, Heiko Westermann and Ivan Rakitić were low-key in comparison, but Slomka believes they will all have important roles to play. "Lincoln is a player with extraordinary abilities, but we have been able to play our game without him this season in the Bundesliga," said Slomka who is now in his second full season at the helm. "The whole team will take over his duties. It's not just left upon young players such as Ivan Rakitić or Mesut Özil."
The main test now is to see how Slomka's charges adapt to the rigours of the UEFA Champions League. Slomka has his sights set on the last 16, but in the medium-term the aim is to return to the competition on a regular basis. "That is at least our goal for the coming years. If we can accomplish that, we would give the club an entirely new perspective."
This is an edited version of an article from this week's uefa.com Magazine. To read in full click here.