It briefly felt like a potential turning point, if not quite a vindication. When Gonçalo Paciência’s header, applied to Omar Mascarell’s corner, crept inside Andreas Luthe’s near post, the roar was hearty even from a meagre crowd. At the end of a week in which the 300 available tickets for the home game with Union Berlin on Sunday were distributed to key workers, a welcome splash of feelgood after weeks and months of bad news for Schalke and their fans, it felt good. It felt positive.
A first point won this season was at least some relief, and out of step with what we’ve come to expect from Schalke. When you’ve gone 20 successive Bundesliga games without a win, the host of cameras around the stadium tend to focus in that bit more tightly on dropped heads and anguished faces, ready for the mournful musical montage later.
Let’s hope the TV production staff didn’t get a head start on this one after Marvin Friedrich’s opener for Union, because it would have ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor after Paciência’s intervention. These days, Schalke are meant to roll over and submit when they meet resistance, which they met against a Union side attempting to become a more refined version of the obdurate mavericks that defied the doubters during their first season in Germany’s top flight.
It was easy to wonder in Union’s better spells whether they even have greater pedigree in their ranks than Gelsenkirchen’s finest these days. In the moments when Max Kruse trimmed open the Schalke defence with outside-of-the-foot passes or when Christopher Trimmel, the “Berlin Beckham”, measured his typically astute balls in from the right, like the one which created the former Schalke man Friedrich’s goal, it was a persuasive argument.
Union’s opener was the acid test, and Schalke responded. Their fightback was a strong one, with the home side chasing a winner after Paciência’s first goal for the club. It was also a departure from the early weeks of the season, and a first feather in the cap of the coach Manuel Baum’s fledgling reign. He had set up an expectation of sorts via his candour in an interview during the international break, laying bare the squad’s lack of confidence.
“During our talks it came out that when we conceded there was never really a feeling that we could score a goal,” Baum had told the club’s in-house TV channel. “We lacked the imagination that it was even possible to score a goal.”
The coach, whose appointment is seen as an indicator of Schalke’s reduced circumstances, liked what he saw in terms of appetite, saying: “It was extremely positive that we accepted the fight.” And fight they did, but Schalke have been here before on this wretched run, showing slivers of determination, but not enough. Even accounting for Borussia Dortmund’s forthcoming Champions League exertions against Lazio – compared with a week in which Baum can further organise and galvanise his troops on the training ground – meeting the old enemy head-on in the Revierderby on Saturday promises to be a steep climb.
There are expectations, in terms of stomach if not quality, as it stands. At the weekend we saw Mainz coach Jan-Moritz Lichte in post-final whistle dialogue with supporters behind the goal after their defeat against Leverkusen – a flashback to normal service in this most fan-engaged of leagues. It was perhaps inevitable that we would see similar elsewhere and after the final whistle at the Veltins Arena, a group of 80 or 90 fans gathered at the stadium’s western gate to remind the players of their responsibilities.
Sport 1 reported that the group’s spokesman, addressing a club delegation led by the new coach Manuel Baum and the sporting director Jochen Schneider, said the efforts against Union were “OK” but “a few more per cent” was expected for the derby. “The derby is the most important game of the year,” Baum and Schneider were told. “You can lose, OK, but it’s all about the manner. If you don’t approach it with at least the same [amount of effort] as today, we’ll meet again. But if we do, it won’t be as peaceful.”
There is, of course, a balance to be struck, and Schneider had his hands full on Sunday after an incident at an under-19 game, in which BVB’s 15-year-old prodigy Youssoufa Moukoko was racially abused by a group of Schalke fans after his hat-trick goal in the fixture. The club apologised to Moukoko and to Dortmund and promised to take “the necessary measures” against the culprits, who had numbered tickets. The club need to act decisively after the PR disaster around the now-former chairman Clemens Tönnies, who made comments condemned as racist by fans and former players last year.
On the field, baby steps in the right direction are the order of the day. The tone was set in the minutes before the Union game with the announcement that Can Bozdogan had signed a new deal through to 2024. The young midfielder is symbolically important, both in his fearless play and the hope he won’t walk away for nothing like Leon Goretzka and Alexander Nübel before him. The road is long but ahead of derby day those fans just want to see tracks being made in the right direction.
• It’s not often Bayern Munich are taken to school, but that’s what happened at Arminia Bielefeld. With the away changing room not meeting post-Covid protocols, the champions decamped to a neighbouring school to get changed. On the pitch it was business as usual, despite the absence of Joshua Kimmich. Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski both scored twice as Bayern cruised to a 4-1 win, but perhaps more notable was Hansi Flick’s annoyance as Corentin Tolisso was sent off for a last-man foul after a defensive mix-up, angrily throwing his coat off. “I was just hot,” Flick remarked drily.
• Meanwhile Dortmund really did do the unexpected, grinding out a single-goal win at Hoffenheim, who were missing the forward Andrej Kramaric after a positive Covid-19 test. It was especially remarkable given BVB’s current lack of defenders, a situation made worse in the first half when Lukasz Piszczek left the field after being accidentally poked in the eye by Stefan Posch. Otherwise it was a gold star for Lucien Favre as his substitutes Erling Haaland (“he’s played a lot of football recently,”) and Marco Reus combined for the captain to score a deserved winner.
• Leipzig are on top after a comprehensive 2-0 win at Augsburg, who had begun the day as leaders. It was sealed by Yussuf Poulsen’s first touch to end all first touches – seconds after replacing Emil Forsberg, he smashed in a superb angled volley from the excellent Dani Olmo’s lofted pass.
• Surprises all round in the capital as Stuttgart deservedly won at Hertha, with the Berlin big spenders now having endured three losses out of four this season . The youngest team in the league (24.7 years old on average) looked like being one of the relegation bankers, but the stylish win even briefly put them in the top four.