DAVID SMITH - Wednesday, April 11, 2012
FC Nürnberg vs Schalke 04
Bundesliga - Wednesday April 11, 2012
Timothy Chandler made a return to the right side of the Nürnberg defense with great success on Wednesday evening, as they took a huge step towards securing their survival in a 4-1 domination over FC Schalke 04.
Jermaine Jones was in Schalke's starting lineup at his traditional midfield position, however after a performance which saw the American pick up a yellow card and come agonizingly close to collecting a second, he was pulled after just over an hour of play.
The friendly rivalry between Nürnberg and Schalke had not been kind to the Frankonians in recent years, with just a single victory over the Königsblauen in the previous 17 meetings giving the third-place visitors a distinct mental advantage from the outset.
Making matters worse, Nürnberg had failed to win since early-March, pushing them within three points of the drop zone at the time of kickoff.
The game started off much as the home crowd had feared, with complete domination by Schalke in possession and the general inability of the hosts to string together more than a pair of passes having the game looking headed for a familiar result.
After seven minutes, Lewis Holtby had the first close call for Shalke, receiving the ball a couple yards outside the top of the area, cutting to the right and attempting a low shot back towards the bottom far corner that rolled just wide.
Four minutes later, Nürnberg had their first foray towards goal, as Mike Frantz broke a tackle on the left to spring behind the defense on a counter-attack. Streaking up the flank with Pekhart storming up the middle into the area, Frantz's attempted cross to the towering Czech was struck horribly, and came closer to hitting the video screen at the top of the rafters than connecting with his teammate's head.
Slowly, "Der Club" began to turn the tide, and Chandler's danger from the wingback position made its first appearance of 2012 in the 18th minute when he sped onto a through-ball on the right behind Schalke left back Sergio Escudero, then one-timed a right-footed cross to the middle of the six-yard box where keeper Lars Unnerstall was lucky to grab it before Pekhart could put his head on it.
They continued their forward thrust, and needed just seven more minutes to strike the first blow to their visitors' confidence. A foul by Joel Matip on Pekhart roughly 40 yards from goal led to a free kick by Daniel Didavi. The 22 year-old attacking midfielder hit the set piece well to the center of the box, where central midfielder Hanno Balitsch headed it down to the right side, well beyond the reach of Unnerstall.
The goal put Schalke in a total state of disarray, with the team misplacing pass after pass and being forced increasingly on the back heel under the constant pressure of the hosts.
It was no surprise that the hosts succeeded in increasing their lead in the 36th minute, after Kyriakos Papadopoulos carelessly held back Frantz in the area for a clear-cut penalty. Timmy Simons took the resulting spot kick, confidently sending his shot straight down the middle, beating Unnerstall who had incorrectly dove to his right.
Further emboldened by the second goal, the Nürnberg players swarmed the ball whenever it was in Schalke's possession, hoping to draw more blood from their hapless opponents.
On one such instance, Jones battled well to keep possession in the defensive end under duress from multiple opponents, but subsequently was forced into a reckless-looking lunge when he came under pressure from Pekhart.
The Czech striker spent more than a minute in pain on the turf appearing to hold his knee, and as he was helped off for treatment, Jones was shown the yellow card by referee Florian Meyer, a fitting accent to his first game back from a card suspension.
Yet another prime opportunity for the hosts was prematurely stopped when Balitsch was whistled for a foul in the box on a 42nd minute corner, negating Dominic Maroh's perfect positioning in free space at the far post that could have been their third goal.
This was quickly forgotten, however, as they did bring their lead to three just moments before the break. Chandler was the man-in-action on this occasion, once again running onto a pass in the right flank and striking a picture-perfect cross to a crowd of onrushing teammates in the middle, which Didavi headed in for the 3-0 lead.
Schalke coach Huub Stevens had seen enough and made a double-switch after the break, pulling teenager Julian Draxler and central midfielder Marco Höger in favor of Teemu Pukki and Peruvian striker Jefferson Farfan.
This did little to improve their fortunes, and much of the second half played out in a languid fashion, with the fans ultimately showing perhaps the most excitement of the final 45 minutes of events far away from the Frankenstadion, although not until the final few minutes.
Jones was lucky to avoid being sent off just past the hour when he felled Frantz with a sweeping tackle from behind, and was spared the possibility of a quick return to suspension by Stevens after being pulled in the 63rd minute in favor of Christoph Metzelder.
Keeping with their American teammate who disappeared immediately into the locker room not to be seen again for the night, Schalke stayed invisible on the attack, with a pair of Nürnberg chances the only highlight until the final minutes.
Didavi's 18-yard attempt on the turn in the 68th minute was blocked before it could pose any true danger. Then Jens Hegeler, who had just entered the game moments before, looked to have scored the 4-0 when he put away a cross at the near post in the 74th minute, however the goal was called off by Meyer after he saw Pekhart foul Metzelder on the play.
With 12 minutes left, the loudest cheer of the half sounded, not due to anything on the field, but instead in reaction to a league update on the scoreboard which informed the crowd that hated rivals FC Bayern had conceded a late goal to Borussia Dortmund in the likely title-deciding game of the season taking place concurrently on the other side of the country.
The jubilant moment of schadenfreude in its purest form was only slightly tainted after Schalke grabbed a consolation goal to make the score respectable with five minutes left. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar maintained possession just outside the area on the left side, and while he couldn't find space to make his shot, he laid it off to Holtby, who looped the ball over keeper Raphael Schäfer and over the line.
The goal mattered little particularly after a foul by Matip on Robert Mak set up Didavi for a 30-yard free kick, which he struck perfectly over the wall to the right-center of goal. Unnerstall was initially wrong-footed on his response, and recovered just in time to lunge towards the ball and watch it bounce just under his fingertips for Nürnberg's fourth and final goal of the game.
The result puts Nürnberg in a good position to maintain their top-flight status with four games left on the schedule. They are currently in 12th place, and now have a six-point cushion separating them from the relegation playoff spot in 16th.
They can all but mathematically assure their survival when they take the field again in three days on a visit to last-place FC Kaiserslautern.
Even with the humiliating loss, little harm is done to Schalke's standing. With fourth-place 'Gladbach only managing a draw in their game on Tuesday, they still have a four-point lead in the race for third place and automatic qualification to the Champions League group stage.
They do, however have one of the toughest games of the season awaiting them during the weekend, as they must host arch-enemies Dortmund, hoping to break their remarkable 24-game unbeaten run in league play.