It was a massive night for Schalke and their fans as they looked to earn qualification into the knockout rounds, the only way they could achieve that aim was to beat Maribor and hope that group leaders Chelsea defeated Sporting Lisbon. Despite being bottom of the group Maribor still had something to fight for, a win for them against Schalke would see them leap up a place to insure they play Europa League football in the new year.
The home side Maribor went into the game in fantastic form as they’ve won the last four league games and currently sit in second place, three points behind Slovenian leaders Domžale. Not only are they in good form, they’ve proved to be tough to beat at home, in the group stage they’ve held both Sporting and Chelsea to 1-1 draws, which makes them unbeaten in seven European home matches. Schalke have improved their form under Roberto Di Matteo and they’ve suffered one defeat in their last five games, earning four wins, getting past the challenge of Wolfsburg and scoring eight and conceding one in the last two games against Mainz and Stuttgart.
Schalke had the first chance of the game, Christian Fuchs gives the ball to Tranquillo Barnetta and the Swiss midfielder controlled with his chest before his effort on the edge of the area trickled just wide of the goal.
The home side started to get more into the game after the ten minute mark and fourteen minutes in they forced Ralf Fährmann into action. Agim Ibraimi came in from the right and after getting past a few players he laid the ball off to Marcos Tavares, his left footed effort from range was comfortably dealt with by the Schalke keeper.
Barnetta had another good chance to test Jasmin Handanovič in the Maribor goal, however once again he was wide of the mark, this time heading from twelve yards out after a good cross from Marco Höger.
Just after the twenty minute mark Atsuto Uchida became the hero for Schalke thanks to some brilliant defending on the line. After making his first block, he managed to block Tavares’ effort while on the ground.
Another chance presented itself to Schalke, Jean-Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting played the ball through to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and his pass across the box was just in front of Barnetta, who couldn’t get the all important touch. Huntelaar had a golden chance to give Schalke the lead before half time. The Dutch striker was free to burst through the middle and after a defender slipped he had time and space to at least hit the target, despite that he fired over after choosing to shoot from outside the area.
It was a disappointing first half as neither keeper were forced into action on too many occasions, most the efforts were from range and often failed to hit the target. Schalke looked like they didn’t won’t too win and more intensity was needed if they were going to break down Maribor, who caused a couple of problems of their own throughout the half.
Schalke showed improvement in the early stages of the second half, they continued to pressure Maribor from set-pieces, unfortunately for the German side none of them came to anything.
Most of Maribor’s efforts came from key man Tavares, he once again found space as the home side hit Schalke on the break, his effort was dragged wide from the edge of the area. After that warning from Maribor, Schalke were inches away from opening the scoring, Uchida’s cross to Barnetta saw the midfielder’s shot blocked and Huntelaar was there to pounce, his effort struck the inside of the post and bounced across the line before Željko Filipović cleared the danger to stop his side going behind.
Schalke had another good opportunity when Fuchs wriggled his way into the box and cut the ball back, Uchida managed to turn, however only into two defenders which saw him commit a foul after being crowded out.
Moments later substitute Max Meyer did what was asked off him as he made an almost immediate impact. Höger broke free down the right and his cross was poorly dealt with by Maribor, Handanovič punched the cross straight to the open Meyer, who converted with ease.
After Meyer’s goal it was just a case of seeing out the victory, Schalke however came close to doubling their lead when Dennis Aogo produced one of the best long distance shots in the game, Handanovič was forced to make a save and he was able to just flick it over the bar. Schalke sat back more after scoring and invited more pressure, despite their efforts the home failed to cause many problems, most their efforts sailed well over or wide. One of the closest efforts came five minutes from time Dare Vršič found space out on the left, however once he picked up the ball he couldn’t force Fährmann, the strike flew across goal and wide.
Despite the less than impressive first half, Schalke came out in the second half and with a bit more attacking intent they managed to get the victory they needed to go through to the knockout stages, Chelsea did what Schalke hoped they would do as they defeated Sporting 3-1. Maribor made things tough for Schalke, like they did with Chelsea and Sporting in previous home games. They can look back on their Champions League campaign with pride after achieving three points, their players can new enjoy their winter break. Schalke are back in action on Saturday as they host Bundesliga newboys Köln.
Article for VAVEL.