The last-gasp breakaway goal by Galatasaray’s Umut Bulut, which confirmed Schalke’s exit from the Champions League, was anecdotal in the end. Had Bulut failed to net, the Bundesliga side would still have gone out on away goals, of course, but they would have left the competition without having lost a game. Not in a Switzerland in World Cup 2006-kind of way either, but in a genuine tug-at-the-heartstrings manner.
That would have been so, so Schalke. The original, pre-Bayern giants of German football do a nice line in heroic failure and, in truth, Tuesday night was always set up for more of the same. Jens Keller’s men came into the second leg at the Veltins Arena with all the right cards, having survived an early onslaught in the first leg in Istanbul to bring a 1-1 draw back home, and entering the match in much better nick than the visitors.
After a dreadful run of one Bundesliga win in 11 attempts, Schalke had three successive wins under their belts heading back into Europe, for which the first leg result in Turkey was the catalyst. The last two were particularly impressive, with a 4-1 win at Wolfsburg followed by victory over Dortmund in Saturday’s derby at the Veltins. This came a day after Galatasaray’s shoddy home defeat to Gençlerbirliği that trimmed their lead at the top of the Super Lig.
It just looked too good, frankly. There had been bad news amid the derby euphoria, when Klass-Jan Huntelaar was stretchered off in the second half having already scored the winner – a piece of misfortune he tweeted to the world with a photo from the inside of an ambulance annotated with the caption “Sh•t happens.”
Schalke’s recent history is shot through with chokes in favourable positions. The 2001 and 2007 Bundesliga titles slipped through their fingers, with the former a particularly excruciating one. Die Königsblauen (Royal Blues) fans were already celebrating on the pitch when the monitors showed Bayern’s Patrik Andersson scoring the 94th minute goal in Hamburg that meant the title went south instead.
For a time, it looked as if they might avoid a pratfall this time. Schalke started well and took the lead through Roman Neustädter, before conceding a pair of highly-avoidable strikes before the break which gave them a mini-mountain to climb. Hamit Altintop – returning to his hometown club – had acres of space from which to strike a long-range leveller before a lamentable mix-up between Neustädter and Marco Höger allowed Burak Yilmaz to break away for a second.
As the mother of all remontadas was going down at the Camp Nou, it looked like Schalke might stage one of their own, after Michel Bastos’ leveller provoked a closing half-hour of intense home pressure. It was fruitless, and in keeping with the extraordinary pressure at this huge club, it is likely that Keller will not survive until next season, despite the fact that he has pulled them back into Champions League qualifying contention in recent weeks.
It is tempting to say that they missed the suspended Jermaine Jones, who scored the goal in Istanbul but spent the return scowling in the stands for underneath a thermal blanket. Yet Schalke are cavalier with or without the former Blackburn loanee.
“We gave everything,” said a visibly drained Bastos to the television cameras after the game. In France, le perdant magnifique (‘the wonderful loser’) is a cherished aspect of football legend on European nights. In north-west Germany, it continues to be a source of great frustration.
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