Schalke facing daunting task at Galatasaray
ISTANBUL (AP) — Schalke coach Jens Keller could hardly face a more daunting Champions League debut when his team visits Galatasaray for the first leg of the last 16 on Wednesday.
Keller was supposed to halt Schalke’s midseason slump, but the interim coach has managed only one win from six games across all competitions since taking over from the dismissed Huub Stevens in December.
Altogether, Schalke has only one win from 12, and its unbeaten record in the Champions League this season faces a somber test against a Galatasaray bolstered by the recent signings of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder.
Drogba, who won the competition with Chelsea last year, scored a spectacular header five minutes into his debut at Galatasaray on Friday, in a move instigated by Sneijder, a 2010 winner with Inter Milan.
“Both of them have quickly merged and integrated with the team,” Galatasaray coach Fatih Terim said.
The Turkish champions recovered from a poor start in the Champions League with three straight wins to finish second behind Manchester United in Group H.
Galatasaray leads the Turkish league by six points with five wins from its last eight games, in sharp contrast to Schalke, which has tumbled from second to ninth in the Bundesliga.
The Gelsenkirchen-based side had Michel Bastos to thank for salvaging a 2-2 draw at Mainz on Saturday, when the Brazilian scored twice for three goals in as many games since his recent transfer from Lyon.
“That was important,” Bastos said.
His late goal provided breathing space for Keller, whose melancholy demeanor has not instilled confidence, and who spoke before the game of “a curse” affecting his side.
Keller had to do without the injured Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Atsuto Uchida, Lars Unnerstall, Ibrahim Afellay, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Ciprian Marica and Christoph Moritz in Mainz.
But his side will be boosted by the return for Huntelaar for the game in Istanbul. The Netherlands striker has been passed fit to play after recovering from a ruptured vein in his left eye.
“I had no problems in training and am ready for Istanbul,” Huntelaar said. “I feel good and can see everything.”
With only five goals in the Bundesliga so far this season, the Dutchman hasn’t shone, but he has four from six Champions League games and the side is counting on his experience.
“It’s important that the ‘Hunter’ is fit again,” said Marco Hoeger, who will play at right back in place of Uchida, who has a hamstring injury.
Afellay (muscle tear), Marica (meniscus) and Moritz (torn ankle ligaments) also remain out, while defender Papadopoulos and goalkeeper Unnerstall are both recovering from knee operations.
Raffael is ineligible after playing for Dynamo Kiev in the competition already this season. Bastos can play as Lyon only took part in the Europa League.
The buildup has been dominated by speculation linking Bayern Munich coach Jupp Heynckes with the job at Schalke next season.
“This is the usual madness. We have to live with it. It doesn’t affect the preparations,” Schalke sports director Horst Heldt said.
Heldt said a good result in Istanbul can help kick-start a recovery and lead the team back to the promising form that Schalke showed at the beginning of the season.
“We are one of four teams unbeaten in the Champions League (this season). It would be nice if it stayed that way. It won’t be easy. It’ll be another notch louder in the stadium that it was in Piraeus,” Heldt said, referring to Schalke’s 2-1 win over Olympiakos in the opening game.
“It’s important for the upcoming tasks in the Bundesliga to build up strength and morale with a good game at Galatasaray.”
One familiar face awaits the Germans in Istanbul. Galatasaray midfielder Hamit Altintop was born in Gelsenkirchen and played for Schalke from 2003-07, scoring eight goals and setting up 11 more in 113 league appearances before switching to Bayern.
Altintop, who joined Galatasaray from Real Madrid last year, warned his new teammates that “Schalke will play with great discipline.”
“We don’t need to be afraid,” Schalke captain Benedikt Hoewedes said. “A cauldron awaits us, but these are also games you have to look forward to.”