THE NEARLY MEN – Can sleeping giants Schalke finally fulfil their potential?

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Updated: May 13, 2013

<While Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have grabbed most of the headlines for their continental exploits this season, on the domestic front things are also on the up for a number of German clubs – not least one of its most popular, Schalke 04.

The North Rhine-Westphalian outfit may have had to watch bitter rivals Dortmund claim two successive league titles, complemented by a DFB-Pokal triumph last season which secured a domestic double, however, Schalke are currently showing signs that they could be ready to close the gap recently created by Jurgen Klopp and his men.

Despite a 2-1 home defeat to Stuttgart on Saturday, fourth-placed Schalke know a final-day win against Freiburg next week will secure the final Uefa Champions League spot and they have already begun work to retain the services of their most important players.

Dutch international Klaas Jan Huntelaar, heavily linked with a move to the English Premier League in recent years, penned a new deal in December which will keep him at the club until 2018, while their teenage prodigy Julian Draxler has also just agreed a new five-year deal.

It is not just players who have been signing new contracts recently either, Die Königsblauen have also handed coach Jens Keller a new deal this week, extending his stay until 2015. The 42-year-old replaced Huub Stevens in December and has impressed, despite having previously had just two months Bundesliga coaching experience at Stuttgart during the 2010/11 season.

The decision to extend Keller’s contract signifies a change in direction for a club that has often found it all to easy to fire coaches – going through an incredible 16 in the last decade alone. It also ends speculation as to who will be in charge of the club next season. Keller was seen by many as simply a stop gap appointment, with such names as Steffan Effenberg, Armin Veh, Christian Streich and Roberto di Matteo all being linked with the job in recent months.

However, Keller has been rewarded for taking Schalke to the verge of Champions League qualification and bringing a semblance of stability to a club that is no stranger to upheaval.  With Keller now at the helm for the near future at least, there are hopes Schalke can build on the foundation that is being put into place by their new coach and the club’s hierarchy.

The bedrock of this foundation could prove to be the Schalke’s star attraction, Julian Draxler. The 19-year-old midfield playmaker is one of Germany’s most exciting prospects and has already won four caps at international level. Draxler joined the club’s youth acadamy as a seven-year-old and made his senior debut in January 2011 when he came on as a substitute during a 1-0 defeat against Hamburg. It didn’t take him long to make an impact either. Coming off the bench in a DFB-Pokal quarter final clash against Nurnburg just one week later, Draxler struck the deciding goal deep into extra time to give Schalke a dramatic 3-2 victory.

Since then, Draxler has gone on to become the youngest player in the club’s history to reach 100 games and was also named in Jogi Löw’s provisional squad for last year’s European Championships. Ultimately, the youngster was left out of the final 23 that went to Poland and the Ukraine, nevertheless, he did make his senior international debut during Germany’s 5-3 defeat to Switzerland last May.

Despite his tender years, Draxler has shown incredible maturity this season and has become the main driving force behind a team that had lost their way somewhat under the previously revered Stevens. A solid start by the club had led many to suggest this could finally be Schalke’s year as they seemed to offer some real resistance to the likes of Bayern and reigning champions Dortmund. However, a dreadful run of results in November saw them slide down the table and Stevens, a man who had been voted ‘Coach of the Decade’ by fans not so long ago, was shown the exit.

He was followed through the door soon after by the highly-rated Lewis Holtby who joined English side Tottenham Hotspur. Initially set to join his new team during the summer, thus enabling him to finish the season with Schalke, the German international instead left Germany for North London at the end of January.

The club and Draxler in particular haven’t looked back since. The midfielder has now contributed nine league goals this term and has dramatically risen to the occasion in the wake of Holtby’s departure. The player’s sublime form this season had, unsurprisingly, seen him linked with a move to a multitude of clubs – most fervently in Germany, and most worryingly for Schalke fans, with bitter rivals Dortmund, who will lose their own playmaker Mario Gotze at the end of the season.

With Die Schwarzgelbe standing on the verge of a second Champions League triumph and having just outplayed Spanish giants Real Madrid over two legs in the semi-finals, it promised to be a difficult few months for Schalke and their fans. Their media machine has been in full motion this week however, and Schalke have made no secret of the  fact that Draxler has committed himself to the club until 2018. In a surreal display of PR provocation, a squadron of vans were hired to carry billboards of the news around Dortmund and at least one was spotted parked outside the Signal Iduna Park.

While Schalke may not currently be a realistic contender for what would be a first championship since 1958,  it is clear the club are finally making efforts to achieve some stability – most notably with the retention of their best players. The fact that they have tied down the likes of Draxler and Huntelaar before the season has even reached its conclusion is a true statement of intent and suggests the club may just have a firm plan for the future.

Financially, Schalke are also in a pretty healthy state and were ranked 12th, one place above Dortmund, in Forbes 2013  list of the world’s most valuable football clubs. Dortmund have actually reported slightly better revenue for the past 12 months, however, Schalke are seen to have a stronger commercial backbone which includes heavyweight sponsors such as Adidas and Russian gas giants Gazprom. Interestingly, Schalke also record higher match day profits than Dortmund, despite the fact that their stadium holds 20,000 less spectators than that of their rivals.

A challenge at the very top of the domestic game will be difficult of course, not least because Bayern Munich are currently attracting some of the biggest names in football, however, beneath them are a slew of clubs that could lead the charge. Dortmund are the obvious challengers but there is also Bayer Leverkusen, a side who have finished a comfortable third this season. Then there is Schalke.

With Dortmund having already lost Gotze to Bayern and speculation mounting that the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Marco Reus may also be on the move, many feel Schalke are the club best placed to offer a serious and continued  challenge to Bayern in coming seasons.

They have been here before of course, but there is a sense of anticipation in Gelsenkirchen that has been absent for some time. Forward-thinking and in great financial shape, Schalke have the chance to strengthen their squad this summer without losing any key players – a rare luxury indeed for a club that is one of Germany’s greatest underachievers.  With Coach Jens Keller understood to have already discussed possible transfer targets with General Manager Horst Heldt, the next few months could prove pivotal in dictating the club’s new direction.

Victory at Freiburg next weekend will be a start and will give Schalke another season in the Uefa Champions League. Qualification to Europe’s flagship tournament will also hand them huge pulling power to attract new players to the club.  What happens between now and August is key for Schalke, but with the Bundesliga seemingly entering a bright new dawn at the forefront of the European game, now is as good a time as any for the famous old club to finally begin fulfilling their huge potential.

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