Never Mind The Ballacks

Schalke: Let the fear begin

Never Mind The Ballacks

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Runners-up last season, Schalke were hotly-tipped to bring a first Bundesliga title back to Gelsenkirchen, but after a calamitous first 14 games of the season, Die Knappen - the miners - have dug themselves into a very big hole indeed.

Predictions that Felix Magath's men would be among the Bundesliga's bottom-feeders with Santa Claus warming up his sleigh would have seen those holding such views whisked off to a secure environment. However, with Schalke currently 15th, a point above the bottom three, ahead of this weekend's encounter with Bayern, all Magath wants for Christmas is nine points from the remaining three games before the winter break.

It's hard to see even Santa being able to work that miracle, though, especially in the wake of last weekend's 5-0 defeat by Kaiserslautern, Schalke's heaviest loss since 1992. "If we play like that in every game, we'll get relegated,"acknowledged a despondent Manuel Neuer. "It was a catastrophic performance that only we the players are responsible for."

Magath, the man of the double-double at Bayern and mastermind of Wolfsburg's shock title win in 2009, seemed - for once - lost for words. "How can a team that had just one change from the side that played Benfica play so badly three days later?" asked the Schalke boss, who was so stunned he confused Benfica with Lyon, whom his team had emphatically dismissed 3-0 to reach the last 16 of the Champions League.

So where has it all gone wrong?

* Last season's success was based on clinical counter-attacks.The 4-0 win over Bremen and the 3-0 defeat of Lyon saw Schalke's opponents enjoy the lion's share of the ball, allowing Magath's men to pick them off. Against Kaiserslautern, it was almost 50-50 and Schalke's average of 54 per cent per game - the fourth-highest in the Bundesliga - suggests they struggle to take the game to opponents.

* Team spirit shone through last season, but Schalke's tackling stats - the fifth-lowest success rate in the league - is symptomatic of a side that lacks determination. "I had the feeling only Manuel Neuer, Christoph Metzelder and Jefferson Farfan were doing something to try and avoid defeat," admitted Magath post-Kaiserslautern, condemning Raul, Klaas-Jan Huntelaaret alby omission. With 14 players brought in and 13 allowed to leave in a frenetic summer, is it any surprise the team plays like they've only just met?

* Schalke have conceded 24 goals in 14 games, a total they only reached with five games remaining last season. Ten of those goals have come from the right side of the back four where Atsuto Uchida and others have failed to fill the void created by Rafinha's departure,while Christoph Metzelder has yet to prove as solid a foil for Benedikt Hoewedes as Marcelo Bordon. Add to that the departure of Heiko Westermann, and Schalke's decision to completely remodel their defence looks ill-advised.

* Though Huntelaar and Raul have grabbed 13 Bundesliga goals between them, their success has masked the failure of their team-mates to chip in. Edu is the only other player to have scored more than once in the league campaign, while only three teams have hit the net fewer times.

Things have got so bad that Magath had to be given a public vote of confidence on Wednesday night after a two-and-a-half-hour-long crisis meeting with the club's board. "Felix Magath convinced us that he and his team will improve the sporting situation," said Schalke supremo Clemens Toennies, who rubbished speculation Christian Gross had been approached. "I'm convinced (Magath) will do it."

Magath has already made moves, brutally curtailing the players' Christmas break to six days, and his exclusions of Jermaine Jones, Alexander Baumjohann and Hans Sarpei from the first-team squad for their lack of commitment in games - in Jones's case - and in training for the other two suggests the coach is keen to re-establish an iron grip on his players.

In sub-zero temperatures, the squad were out training this week without hats or gloves, which either suggests a commitment to the cause above the norm or a diktat from above. Given Magath's reputation for rigour, the latter is probably more likely, but unless he can get his 'miners' all digging deep for the cause on a regular basis, Schalke may disprove the adage that they are 'too good to go down'.

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