Slumping to second-bottom place in the Bundesliga could be the fate that awaits Nuremberg this weekend, as the Bavarian outfit travel to high-flying Schalke. Dieter Hecking’s side, sat in 15th place, are on a dire run of form at the moment, and if they lose in a round of fixtures where both Hamburg and Freiburg are victorious, Nuremberg will join state neighbours Augsburg at the bottom. Schalke, on the other hand, could end matchday 13 in second spot, as they currently sit one point behind runners-up elect Borussia Dortmund. On paper, Nuremberg – whose fans have a very good relationship with Schalke’s – shouldn’t present too much of a problem for the 2010/11 Champions League semi-finalists: Hecking’s side have scored a league-worst four goals on the road. In comparison, Schalke – who are also topping their group in the Europa League – are the third sharpest side in front of goal so far this season, and come into this game having lost just one of their last ten matches (a surprise home reverse to Kaiserslautern on October 15).
Delving ever deeper into his squad, Hecking hasn’t picked the same set of four defenders or five midfielders for the last four games. Instead, the coach has attempted to introduce players like Wilson Kamavuaka in a bid to turn around a poor spell of form. His troubled team have just one win from their last eight matches, and that came in the cup against 2. Bundesliga strugglers Aue. The 47-year-old’s side play some nice stuff at times, but lately, they’ve been toothless in attack, error-strewn at the back, and not particularly penetrating in possession. However, Hecking has a number of wingers who can cause any team problems on their day, and former Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund man Markus Feulner might raise his game if the Schalke fans single him out for the odd boo.
That may not come to pass, however, due to the friendship between the clubs. Only Peer Kluge, though, has played for both teams – the tough-tackling midfielder having joined Schalke from Nuremberg last year. Kluge will play no part on the field on Saturday, as he’s ruled out for the rest of the season following knee surgery. Jefferson Farfán – who has been in good form – is also out after sustaining a lateral collateral ligament injury on international duty for Peru.
Farfán and the aforementioned Kluge will be joined in their inactivity by goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann, Benedikt Höwedes – injured playing for Germany in the week – and Tim Hoogland. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, meanwhile, had to play for Holland in the week against Germany wearing a face mask because of his broken nose, but should be ok to start at the Veltins-Arena on the weekend – as should Atsuto Uchida, who played for Japan against North Korea in the week, and was given the day off training yesterday to recover.
The Japanese international’s club coach, Huub Stevens, has come in and picked up from where Ralf Rangnick left off. Round 12’s 2-2 draw away at Hannover was preceded by impressive wins over Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen, and the Dutchman has selected the same back-four in the last three games. Joël Matip has been singled out for praise by sporting director Horst Heldt, who said: “With his pace he leaves opponents for dead. It reminds me of Lucio, it really does. Jöel has also done well in holding midfield. But, for me, he has all the prerequisites for an excellent centre-back. He is quick, good in the air and comfortable dealing with critical one-against-one situations.” Despite his form, the Cameroon international came third in the club’s last player of the month poll, with stand-in goalkeeper Lars Unnerstall taking a 58 per cent share of the vote.
Problems still persist as to how or where best Schalke use Lewis Holtby, but fears over a lack of depth in the striking department were eradicated in the Bundesliga game played before the two-week international break, as Teemu Pukki made light of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s absence by netting twice against Hannover. Coming into the game, Stevens said: “We’ve been training as normal, though one or two players have done some individual work. Our scouts have watched [Nuremberg] and now we’re trying to integrate their findings. They are a good team and they’ll try to make things very difficult for us. We’re preparing hard for them.”
A fair share of Hecking’s players were also on international duty this past fortnight, with Tomáš Pekhart (Czech Republic), Timm Klose (Switzerland), Timothy Chandler (USA), Róbert Mak (Slovakia U21), Markus Mendler and Patrick Rakovsky (both Germany U19) and Timmy Simons (Belgium) all featuring for their national teams on Tuesday. However, although Alexander Esswein got game time for Germany U21s, Marvin Plattenhardt had to be content with a place on the bench for the same team as an unused sub.
Whether some of those players (a) feature, or (b) look a bit leggy remains to be seen, but something that is a certainty is that the absence of injured pair Per Nilsson and Javier Pinola will leave Nuremberg short at the back. On top of that, Albert Bunjaku’s injury and Pekhart’s late withdrawal due to a death in the family also deplete Hecking of attacking options. Mike Frantz, however, should be good to go. Speaking this week, the Nuremberg coach said: “My lads have worked well in training, and we are really motivated for this game. I am confident that we can get something there. The fact we have not won in seven games does not weight us down at all. In fact, it is a challenge for us.” Mischievously, Hecking went on to add: “We have analysed Schalke, and even they have weaknesses.”
If this match is anything like the DFB-Pokal classic played out at the Veltins-Arena by the sides on January 25 (Julian Draxler with a particularly memorable last-minute winner in a 3-2 Schalke win), then we’re in for a treat. For those who like a flutter, your money is best placed on Schalke: Nuremberg have only beaten the Gelsenkirchen outfit once in their last 18 attempts. That sole victory actually happened in October of last year, when Andreas Wolf headed in a late goal to hand Nuremberg a 2-1 win. You have to go back to March 1999 to find the penultimate time Nuremberg defeated Schalke (a 3-0 home win in the Bundesliga). However, when the Bavarian side last travelled to Schalke, back in February 2011, they held their hosts to a 1-1 draw – a result which led to fans of relegation-battling Schalke jeering then coach Felix Magath.
The most notable game between the sides in recent history, however, was the round 34 fixture contested in May 2008. Two goals from Marcelo Bordon handed Schalke a 2-0 win. Thus, they took three points, Nuremberg took none… and were relegated as a result. Players don’t stick around at clubs for too long nowadays, though, and only one of the 22 players who started the game that day is still at his club. That man is Nuremberg’s Argentinian left-back Pinola; who, given his poor form so far this season, may also be on his way pretty soon.
Schalke against Nuremberg kicks off at 2.30pm tomorrow afternoon, and can be watched, live, on Bet365.com. The referee will be Knut Kircher, who has already taken charge of games involving both these sides this season (Hamburg vs Schalke, and Borussia Mönchengladbach vs Nuremberg).