Chelsea suffered a serious setback with defeat in their opening Champions League group game at home to FC Basel, ruining Jose Mourinho’s return to European football at Stamford Bridge.
This allowed Schalke to make massive strides towards topping the group, securing two wins from two to move three points clear of the Blues ahead of Tuesday's clash in Gelsenkirchen.
The two sides have identical records over the last five games, winning four and drawing one and are favourites to qualify from Group E. But Chelsea will need to recover from
that opening day defeat and definitely beat Schalke if Mourinho’s men want to finish top of the group.
Schalke’s stuttering league form hasn’t been apparent in Europe, with a perfect start seeing them take six points and concede no goals. Chelsea are in pursuit of top spot and could go level on points with the German side should they win in the Veltins Arena. In fact, a win for Basel in Bucharest and Chelsea in Gelsenkirchen would put three teams on six points by the half way point of the group stages. What seemed like easy passage into the next round for Chelsea is suddenly shaping up into a tough challenge and the group is starting to look very competitive.
October has robbed the Bundesliga side of several key players - namely goal machine Klaas-Jan Huntelaar - and playing Chelsea couldn’t have come at a worse time. However, they’re three points ahead of the Blues and will have home advantage on their side on Tuesday. Jens Keller isn’t the most experienced manager but he has an exciting team and, if they can continue their form so far, they’ll be a handful for Chelsea.
Mourinho has the advantage of depth in his squad and a wealth of attacking options in midfield make Chelsea dangerous. However, they still lack a natural finisher. Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres are yet to really make their mark this season, with only one goal between them in the league. They will need the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar to be firing on all cylinders if they’re going to get the win they desperately need.
Schalke are without a number of key players. With Jefferson Farfan, Chinedu Obasi and Huntelaar all absent, they look particularly threadbare up front while new signing Kevin-Prince Boateng is also unavailable.
However, they do boast the incredibly talented Julian Draxler, who is earning all the plaudits following a run of strong performances. At the tender age of just 20, he has already developed into a great reader of the game and runs the midfield with his pacey dribbling and excellent technical ability. He may be young, but Schalke’s homegrown golden boy is immensely talented and will be one for Chelsea to watch.
Continuing the trend of talented German youth is captain Benedikt Howedes, who was shaped by the academy at Schalke and, like Draxler, has been with the club his whole life. He’s a natural born leader - captaining at youth level and being given the armband for the first team at the age of 23 - and is the crown jewel of a solid, well-organised defence which is yet to be breached in Europe this season.
The responsibility for goals falls to new signing Adam Szalai, an expensive acquisition from Mainz whose double against PAOK in the second leg fired Schalke into the group stages. He’s playing his first season of European football but, in the absence of Huntelaar and Obasi, he is the main striker and needs to adapt quickly to fire Schalke into the second round.
It’s hard not to back Schalke on paper. Two wins and no goals conceded is a record that speaks for itself, but Chelsea will provide a tougher test and they know they need to beat Schalke if they want to finish top of the group. Mourinho’s side need to make up ground conceded against Basel and will go all out to get the three points.
Schalke are well organised defensively and, without a deadly striker threatening the back line, Chelsea may struggle for chances. All eyes will be on Draxler to impress, but he could become swamped in a midfield battle against a wealth of talent and experience. It’ll be close, but Schalke’s defence will finally be beaten as their 100% record comes to an end.
Prediction: Schalke 0-2 Chelsea
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