Chelsea offer no respite to old hero Roberto Di Matteo at Schalke
What a difference a few centimetres make. That was the margin between Naldo's late header for Wolfsburg at the Veltins Arena on Saturday afternoon hitting the crossbar -- as it did -- or going in, which would have seen Schalke shell a three-goal lead against direct rivals for a Champions League spot.
Instead, after holding on for a 3-2 victory, Roberto Di Matteo can exhale and look back on four home wins out of four since he took charge exactly seven weeks ago. The pause to look at that record is brief, though, with the Champions League visit of his former club Chelsea to Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday night. It is a crucial game in Schalke's season, hot on the heels of the last one. The treadmill is relentless, a fact underlined by Di Matteo as he barely acknowledged the emotional side of his reunion with The Blues as he looked forward to the game with various members of the British media last week.
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This is how it is at a club the size of Schalke. There is no respite, because -- make no mistake -- this is a genuine monster of a club, which hosts on average over 61,000 fans every fortnight. Only five clubs in Europe (local rivals Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich) count on bigger attendances, despite the fact that Die Konigsblauen's last German title predates the foundation of the modern Bundesliga (which came to life in 1963) by five years.
It is these dimensions, with their incumbent pressure, that tempted Di Matteo out of the extended sabbatical that followed his sacking from the head coach role at Stamford Bridge in November 2012 after winning the Champions League that summer. There were offers in the meantime, even if Chelsea continuing to pay a contract that ran until June 2014 meant there was no financial imperative, at least, to entertain them. Yet this offer "felt right," according to Di Matteo.
He has chosen bravely given the size of the task, but also with reason. After his removal from his post at West Bromwich Albion in November 2011, it looked like his managerial career might be over when it was barely underway, but his recruitment as Andre Villas-Boas' assistant at Chelsea the following summer, and the Portuguese's subsequent struggles, afforded him a promotion he would surely never dared dream of.
With that hard-won status as a big hitter in a whirlwind seven months in charge of the Blues -- that took in the FA Cup as well as that astonishing victory in Munich, of course -- Di Matteo was smart to look before he leapt. He could have easily lost his new credibility as quickly as he had won it by jumping into the wrong job. Taking his time, and waiting for a really big fish, was the sensible option.
Di Matteo arrived well prepared too, already speaking excellent German and with a strong understanding of the club's demanding culture. One factor that he may not have considered, however, is that Schalke supporters expect style, even if they have grown accustomed to sparse success. It has not taken long for discontent over Di Matteo's tactics to surface, with the crowd requiring a daring team and not always getting it so far. Schalke have enjoyed greater possession in just two of their seven games under the new coach's charge to date -- and one of those was against a Sporting Lisbon team who played the best part of an hour at the Veltins with 10 men and only just lost 4-3.
It is a return to questions posed in the remainder of the season he inherited from Villas-Boas, despite the trophies gleaned in that period. A certain pragmatism was understandable then, with results from cup games -- relying heavily on experienced campaigners such as John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba playing from memory -- justifying the means. The problems really arose of course when, after the arrival of the flair of Eden Hazard and Oscar post-Munich, Di Matteo was expected to commute to a more expansive style. That moment will arrive at Schalke, too.
His predecessor Jens Keller always understood that demand. Keller, six months younger than Di Matteo, had spent his whole playing and coaching life in the Bundesliga, and was promoted from Schalke under-17 coach to the chief role just before Christmas 2012. Picking up the reins from the legendary Huub Stevens, Keller left many unconvinced from day one, apparently not having the personality or the bombast required. He always had a strong grasp of the image the team should project, though. Keller's Schalke were bold and open -- often foolishly so, and constantly cut open by swift counters. They were fun to watch, even if it had become clear by the end that they were going nowhere fast.
The concern is that in seeking solidity, Di Matteo will go too far in the other direction. He is displaying awareness of the rising feeling, though, and the switch from the standard 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2 that authored the win over Wolfsburg showed real savvy. In the first 25 minutes which saw Schalke storm into a 3-0 lead, it worked like magic, with Atsuto Uchida and Christian Fuchs (the latter's goal was ultimately the decisive one in the match) enjoying their freedom in the wing-back positions, and two-goal Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting thriving in partnership with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, as opposed to his normal role on the left.
So do excuse Schalke's new coach if he seems indifferent to a meeting against Chelsea that many assume should be a landmark one. He has plenty to occupy his mind as he embarks on what will be one of the biggest challenges of his managerial career.
Andy Brassell is a writer/broadcaster/producer for BBC, Guardian, Mirror, Talksport, BT Sport, WhoScored. Follow him on Twitter @andybrassell.