On the 16th of March, Schalke’s Chairman Clemens Tonnies wielded the axe to part company with his then Head Coach, Felix Magath. At the time, Schalke occupied tenth place in the Bundesliga (their highest position of the season), had just completed a two-leg victory over Valencia to take them into the Champions’ League quarter-final, and were looking forward to a domestic Cup final. Tonnies’ reasoning? “we have to make a decision now. Regardless of our performances in the Champions’ League. This situation is affecting the entire club and causes a lot of unrest”. The ‘situation’ to which he was referring Magath’s apparent stand-off with senior players in the dressing room, and with the Club’s die-hard fans.
Fast-forward just two months, and the envisaged resurrection that was supposed to be ushered in through the appointment of Ralf Rangnick looks ever more distant. Rangnick is known as ‘the professor’ on account of his masterminding TSG Hoffenheim’s remarkable rise through German football. Initially, this reputation appeared well-founded, as he oversaw near total domination against Inter Milan to secure a Champions’ League showdown with Manchester United. However, as quickly as his new charges gathered steam, so the wheels fell off in dramatic fashion. Displays in the two ties with United were as lacklustre as those against Inter had been exhilarating. Sandwiching a demoralising 4-1 league reversal against fierce rivals Bayern Munich, those defeats came as part of a run of seven games without a win in all competitions, that saw Die Königsblauen drop to a finishing spot of 14th in the league, and have left Rangnick looking far more like the new-boy-lost, rather than tutor extraordinaire.
Ironically, Rangnick’s one remaining source of salvation comes in the form of this Saturday’s DFB Pokal Final. Ironic because it was Magath’s unwavering commitment to the Cup competitions that helped in his undoing. Recognising at a fairly early stage in the season that his squad lacked the strength for a serious league challenge, the 57-year-old Manager channelled efforts into the respective Cup campaigns. That conscious decision sat poorly with the Club’s hierarchy, ultimately contributing to his demise.
Rangnick – four years Magath’s junior and, heavily linked with the Liverpool job in January – is widely held as a very astute, intelligent, and able Coach. Yet the apparent naivety with which he approached those encounters with United and Bayern have served to put a severe dent in his polished exterior, not to mention just two domestic wins from his eight games in charge. However, lifting the Pokal trophy this weekend would end almost a decade without silverware for Schalke, and that would all be swiftly forgotten.
In the likes of Benedickt Höwedes, Christoph Metzelder, José Jurado, Jefferson Farfán, and the evergreen Raúl, Rangnick has a mouth-watering blend of youth and experience at his disposal. Players of that ilk put Schalke very much as favourites against their second-tier opponents – MSV Duisburg – and wins over Frankfurt, Nürnberg, and Bayern en route to Berlin have helped to keep a positive mindset drilled through the squad. Add to that mix the presence of Manuel Neuer – especially in what is likely to be his last game for his boyhood Club – and the task facing MSV looks tough.
For their part, Duisburg should certainly not be underestimated. Having beaten top-flight opponents in Köln and Kaiserslautern already, Milan Šašić’s Zebras go into the Final with just two goals conceded, eleven scored, and full of quiet confidence. Duisburg finished the season in 8th in the 2. Bundesliga. And since guaranteeing their place in the Final – through a 2-1 success over Energie Cottbus – they have endured a similar drop in form to that of Schalke; with just four wins in two months. Yet they do boast the tools and set-up to both neutralise Schalke’s attacking potential, and cause their rearguard problems. In Srdjan Baljak and Stefan Maierhofer, MSV have two of the 2. Bundesliga’s more potent strikers, provided for by the exuberant wing-play of youngsters Sefa Yilmaz and Olcay Sahan. Šašić likes his team to attack with pace, built on solid foundations of two holding midfielders and a resolute back four. That, along with their underdog status, will put the onus very much on Schalke – a position their more illustrious opponents haven’t enjoyed being cast into of late.
In direct competition, the two sides have not met since Duisburg’s last foray in the first division some three years ago. In the past ten years, six fixtures have yielded four wins for the Westfalians, and two draws. Not only have MSV failed to win in that time, but they have only netted three times. However, in the history of the Bundesliga format, things are far more even; with 22 wins apiece, and 16 draws. Schalke also hold the historical high ground in the Pokal, having taken the trophy back to Gelsenkirchen on four occasions (the last time in 2002). Duisburg have yet to enjoy that feeling, and have suffered defeat in the final three times. This will be their first appearance at that stage since 1998.
Ultimately, this game matters a substantial amount to both Clubs, for markedly different reasons, and the outcome may well depend on Schalke’s ability to handle the occasion. That may sound strange given their Champions’ League experience, but the pressure is building for them to be playing European football again next season. Financial constraints also weigh heavy as the purse strings are tightened. That said, they have – largely – performed well in big games, and should be expected to triumph.
Prediction: Schalke 2 – 0 Duisburg