Chelsea were drawn into Group E this afternoon, along with Schalke 04, FC Basel, and Steaua Bucharest. Many of you probably haven't seen a ton of those three sides, so we're going to take a closer look at all of them in the next few days.
The first side we look at will be pot two opponent Schalke 04, who have been off to a woeful start to the 2013/14 campaign. After finishing 4th in the Bundesliga last season, Schalke had to win a two-legged playoff against PAOK to qualify for the group stage, and struggled in their attempt to do so. They finished with a 4-3 aggregate victory over the Greek side, with a stoppage time goal in the second leg finally putting the tie to bed.
While Schalke struggled but ultimately succeeded in their playoff, their Bundesliga start has been a nightmare. After a 3-3 draw to a poor Hamburg side to start the season, the club had woeful performances in losses to both Wolfsburg and Hannover 96. They sit 16th in the 18-team league after a trio of fixtures, having managed only a single point and conceding nine goals thus far. Combined with the three goals allowed in the playoff, it's been a nightmare start to the season for the defense.
How Schalke did last season
Schalke had a strange go of things last season, with a promising start, a terrible slump, a moderately successful European spell, and ultimately a return to the Champions League. After the first 12 matches of the Bundesliga season, Schalke found themselves in second place behind only the eventual European champions. A horrible slump caused them to drop all the way to 10th in the table by matchday 21, but the club managed to right the ship and finish a respectable 4th on the last day of the campaign.
2013/14 2012/13 Champions League was solid for the German side, who were drawn into a relatively easy group last season as well. While Arsenal provided a quality opponent, both Olympiacos and Montpelier were among the weakest sides in the field. Schalke didn't surprise many when they advanced out of that group, but they did turn some heads by topping it. Unfortunately for Schalke, they ran into an upgraded Galatasaray side in the first knockout round, and a 4-3 aggregate defeat saw them ousted from the competition.
Key returning players
On paper, Schalke have a fairly decent side with the potential for some thrilling moments. Klaas Jan-Huntelaar may not be among the elite strikers in Europe anymore, but he's still a very solid player that most clubs would love to have leading their attack.
Behind Hutelaar is one of the most in-demand talents in Europe, as Julian Draxler could find a place at basically any side in Europe. The 19-year old is one of Germany's brightest young stars, and is capable of some truly amazing things.
In the midfield, US international Jermaine Jones provides the anchor. He's nowhere near good enough to get anywhere near Chelsea's squad, but he's a solid contributor that will be a key cog in helping to cover the center backs.
Speaking of those center backs, the club should have some quality depth there. Benedikt Howedes and Joel Matip are two of the club's better players, and Kyriakos Papadapoulos would be the subject of big bids from some of Europe's top sides if he could ever manage to stay on the pitch. The Greek defender is almost back from his most recent injury issue, and there's still a solid chance that he's sold before the transfer window closes on Monday if a decent offer comes around.
Christian Fuchs is another defender that will help provide stability, even if he's not particularly flashy. He's probably been the only member of that defensive unit that's impressed at all this season.
Schalke haven't made any blockbuster moves this summer, but have made several quality depth signings that should help them be a bit more consistent this year. The big move was probably the bargain signing of Felipe Santana, a squad player at rivals Borussia Dortmund that will push for regular minutes (especially if the defense continues to be atrocious).
Salazai Szalai was the 'big money' move of the summer, but he will almost certainly be more of a bench option than a regular starter. He'll be used to spell the 30-year old Huntelaar, but I'd be surprised if he's considered for anything more than the substitutes bench against Chelsea. He did score twice in the deciding game against PAOK, while Huntelaar was out with injury.
Schalke signed a pair of talented youngsters that may also play roles for the club this season. At 22, Christian Clemens is the more developed of the pair, and has already been getting regular starts. They also signed 18-year old Leon Goretzka, who probably won't see much time against us but might be a fun one to watch going forward.
Schalke only lost one player of note over the summer, as the 18-month loan of Michel Bastos was cancelled by Lyon. Schalke reportedly had the right to match any offer Lyon accepted for the player, but chose not to do so when Al-Ain FC came calling.
The biggest loss Schalke suffered last season came during the January transfer window, when Tottenham Hotspur finalized their deal to bring Lewis Holtby to London. The player was initially going to leave on a free during the summer, but the clubs eventually reached an agreement that saw Holtby make the move in January.
Schalke should be a decent side, and have the potential to play some great games. I'd pick them to finish a comfortable second in Group E, while fighting it out with Bayer Leverkusen and Freiburg for the 3rd and 4th place spots in the Bundesliga. They need to start playing well in a hurry though, because they've been awfully bad thus far.
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