There was a freakish nature to the two first half of the goals that sent Schalke crashing out of Champions League, but in a season of confounding highs and dumbfounding lows, today’s elimination at the hands of Galatasaray seems apropos. Conceding twice in six minutes just before halftime, Schalke found the perfect complement to Saturday’s win over Borussia Dortmund, a complement that only the bruised hearts of the club’s followers will be able to appreciate.
Early this season, Schalke looked like one of the best teams in Germany, though a mid-season slide sent them crashing to mid-table. With Saturday’s 2-1 win over rival BVB vaulting them fourth in league, Schalke seemed to have turned a page, but after losing 3-2 at home to Galatasaray, the Miners have instead descended into another valley, one that sees them out of Champions League.
Having drawn 1-1 at Gala three weeks ago, Schalke were favored to make their second quarterfinal in three years, and after Roman Neustäder stabbed home the opener in the 17th minute, that script seemed set to hold. Though Galatasaray had been the more progressive side before the goal, Schalke had players capable of protecting their lead and seeing out the match. They did it three weeks ago when they bled out a drawn in Istanbul. Surely they could do the same in Gelsenkirchen.
But former Miner Hamit Altintop derailed the plot in the 37th minute. His speculative 26-yard blast after a Gala restart froze Timo Hildenbrand before swerving into the right side of goal. With one low percentage strike, Galatasaray had not only equalized, 2-2, but also found a valuable away goal.
That away goal rule proved large in the 42nd minute when Hildebrand failed to beat Burak Yilmaz to a ball at the top of the Schalke box. The Gala striker was able to chip home into an open net for his eighth goal of the competition, giving Gala a 3-2 lead.
The score could have proved devastating, but when Michel Bastos converted chaos into a goal in the 63rd minute, Schalke had plenty of time to find a winner. With Gala holding the away goals tiebreaker, they’d need it. Their second half onslaught led them to 60 percent of the game’s possession and a 26-15 edge in shots.
But it also left them empty-handed. When Gala substitute Umut Bulut scored in injury time, the tiebreakers no longer mattered. Gala had won outright, their 4-3 aggregate victory sending them to their first quarterfinal in 12 years.
Ironically, they did so without game-breaking performances from their biggest stars. While Yilmaz has proven to be Gala’s best player throughout the tournament, it was the January acquisitions of Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba that were expected to make the Turkish champions a threat in the knockout round. Yet neither player had a significant impact on the tie. Instead, it was Yilmaz, who leads the competition in goals, whose performance defined the tie.
That may be something Schalke learns to regret. In the second half today, we saw what the team was capable of doing, but they only elected to find that gear once pushed to the edge of elimination. Just as in this weekend’s Revierderby, they played one good half of soccer, but unlike BVB, Galatasaray made them pay. Had Schalke played better, Gala may have needed more from Drogba and Sneijder.
Perhaps there’s no better way for Schalke to end this year’s competition: eliminated by a team who didn’t have to play their best to advance. Whether you confine your scope to today’s game, that last week, or expand it to the entire season, Schalke is a team of contradictions. And those contradictions allowed Galatasaray to go into Gelsenkirchen and eliminate them from Champions League.