NÜRNBERG HANG ON FOR DRAW AT SCHALKE
FC Nürnberg youngster Timothy Chandler played the full 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon as the team jumped out to a first half lead, but were forced to hang on for a hard-fought draw thanks to a second-half charge from their hosts Schalke 04.
In addition to drawing his first yellow card since being called up to Nürnberg's first team over the winter, the game saw the American pull double-duty, starting out on the right side of the midfield then shifting into the defense following an injury to right back Juri Judt 30 minutes into the game.
Prior to the contest, Nürnberg had been without a doubt the Bundesliga's hottest team in the new year, racking up four straight wins heading into Saturday's showdown, with the chance of a place in next season's Europa League gradually coming into view.
A one-game card suspension to regular midfielder start Almog Cohen and a knee injury to forward Julian Schieber guaranteed Chandler's third consecutive start, and a solid performance coupled with the long-term absence of the team's leading scorer and a potential several-game absence of Judt could see him maintain his place in the starting eleven over the long haul.
The announcement of Schieber's meniscus injury on Friday was a particularly harsh blow to the team, as the required surgery and recovery is expected to keep him out for a minimum of six weeks. Head coach Dieter hecking's starting lineup featuring a five-man midfield with Christian Eigler situated as the lone striker perhaps gave a hint of what to expect from "Der Club" as they cope with the their shorthanded situation over the coming weeks.
On the other side of the ball, Schalke's disappointing season saw them drop an embarrassing 2-1 decision to last-place Borussia Mönchengladbach the previous weekend, and a win by Felix Magath's squad was an utter necessity to quell the constant stream of criticism heading the team's way from fan groups and media alike.
The notoriously tough coach had tried to counteract some of the ill feelings of supporters and soften his public image by putting together a curious Facebook campaign earlier in the week, however his generally awkward "heart to heart" videos messages had an effect amongst the populace ranging from head scratching to outright laughter.
Following a relatively tame opening few minutes, Schalke had the game's first threatening foray towards goal in the seventh minute; Klaas-Jan Huntelaar dropped a short pass back to Jose Jurado who picked out Raul working his way into the upper left corner of the six-yard box. The Spaniard's shot was on-target, however Nürnberg keeper Raphael Schäfer was up to the task to block it out for a corner.
Nürnberg had a first crack at goal six minutes later when a give-and-go between Robert Mak and Jens Hegeler put the latter in position for a 20-yard attempt that flew just over Schalke's crossbar.
In the 20th minute, Brazilian forward Edu ran onto a fine through ball from Raul which sent him towards goal and while Schäfer's tackle to dispossess him of the ball just inside the penalty area was perceived by many in the stands to warrant a spot kick, the referee disagreed and told both teams to play on.
Chandler was active on both sides of the ball from his right midfield position, and picked up his first yellow card of the campaign in the 26th minute when he took out Anthony Annan with a hard tackle which left the Ghanian international limping for several minutes.
Hecking's already-thin squad took another potential injury hit at the half-hour mark when right back Juri Judt went down with an apparent leg injury near Schalke's goal, which prompted his substitution out of the game, and the shifting of Chandler back to the defense in a wing-back role.
Atsuto Uchido sent a cross into the six-yard box moments later following a counter which Schäfer was lucky to get a hand on to deflect out of the path of Huntelaar, who was in perfect position for what would be an enticing free header.
Nürnberg took the lead after 37 minutes under somewhat fortunate circumstances, benefiting from a minor mistake from German international team keeper Manuel Neuer, which almost certainly had Magath logging into his Facebook account to update his status to read "When will this nightmare end?"
Mehmet Ekici broke free of his marking defender just inside the upper right corner of the penalty area and took a crack at the center of goal. While Neuer was able to deflect the ball with a leaping save, his parry placed it directly at the feet of Jens Hegeler on the left side, who had little problem knock it into the nearly open net.
With the crowd of more than 60,000 infuriated by what looked to be yet another loss by their under-performing team, Schalke tried their best to equalize before halftime to stop the bleeding.
Edu chested down a ball at the top of the penalty area five minutes before the break and laid it off to Huntelaar for a blast which was blocked out by the defense, then Raul was barely beaten to a loose ball in Nürnberg's six-yard box by Schäfer to close out the first-half action.
Having been escorted into the halftime pause with a unanimous chorus of booing by the home crowd, Schalke came out of the break with a renewed fire and evened the score six minutes into the second half thanks to the predatory penalty box instincts of Spanish striker Raul.
A fantastic darting run by Sergio Escudero up the middle gave midfielder Jurado the ball at the edge of the penalty area. While his shot was immediately blocked off his foot by Philipp Wollscheid, Nürnberg midfielder Markus Mendler accidentally knocked the ball into open space just behind the left corner of the six-yard box, where Raul ran in at the perfect moment to one-time his left-footed shot out of Schäfer's reach inside the far post.
The equalizing goal re-energized the hosts, and they spent much of the next 20 minutes looking set to grab the go-ahead goal, with the entry of 17 year-old phenom Julian Draxler into the game in the 55th minute giving them a noticeably increased level of creativity in the midfield.
A pass by Draxler to Raul allowed the Spaniard to spring Huntelaar into the area, however Wollscheid was able to clear the ball from his feet in the last instant.
Schalke showed a sudden knack for moving forward with a stylish one-touch game between Hutelaar, Draxler, Raul along with the other players in the center of the park, which would have paid off for the go ahead-goal had Schäfer not kept his team in the game with spectacular saves from a pair of shots by Raul in the 59th and 61st minutes.
Nürnberg weathered the storm and eventually calmed down the game to a fairly even contest to take much of the wind out of Schalke's sails.
They had a penalty shout turned down in the 66th minute when Escudero made a dangerous tackle of Mak on the right side of the penalty area, however the referee's whistle remained quiet.
Chandler's speed was squarely on display in the 71st minute when Schalke substitute Lukas Schmitz pushed the ball around the defender's left and tried to round him on the right to recover on a quick counter-attack. The speedy American quickly recovered and easily outran his opponent to the ball, clearly showing that his skill set will force opposing attackers to take a more creative approach.
Chandler then showed his attacking abilities from the right back position five minutes later when he sent a cross from the right edge towards the far post to Marek Mintal, however the Slovakian's shot was directly at Neuer.
With the game looking to be headed for a draw, a flurry of activity in the final ten minutes saw both teams coming close to pulling out a winner.
Second-half Nürnberg substitute Marvin Plattenhardt sent a cross which Mendler headed off the crossbar in the 82nd minute. The rebound fell to the feet of Plattenhardt directly in front of an open goal, however his poorly hit shot was side left.
They had an enticing free kick situation Jurado fouled Mendler on the right edge of the penalty area, however his resulting acutely-angled free kick attempt flew wide left.
Schalke almost gave their fans reason to cheer on two occasions in injury time, first when Huntelaar's close shot from the right side was blocked out for a corner by Schäfer, then in the final moments when Benedikt Höwedes had a clear crack from near the penalty area, but saw his shot knocked to safety, again with Schäfer bailing his team out in what typified his man-of-the-match performance.
That would be the last act of the game, with the whistle finally blowing after two minutes of injury time, awarding one point to each team.
"We're definitely satisfied with the result," Chandler stated following the game. "A point is a point, anytime you get a point on the road it's very important."
"Schalke came out of the locker room very well and put a lot of pressure on us," he analyzed of their hosts' turnaround of the game in the 20 minutes following the halftime break. "After they scored their goal, we slowly got the game under control, were able to hold it in the end and are pleased with the result."
Being forced to switch back to the defensive role which he had been filling for the team in several previous appearances was of little consequence to the speedy player, as he feels both the wing and the right back positioning make equal use of one of his most noticeable attributes, as was evident on several occasions.
"I consider myself more of an all-around player, and it was definitely no problem to make the switch to defense after [Judt's] injury. I like to work as a more attacking player on the right side and use my quickness to help the team get forward."
The point leaves Nürnberg in eighth place in the Bundesliga standings, one point behind both Freiburg and Hamburg, and now four back of Mainz in the final Europa League spot.
They return to their home stadium in one week to host 12th place FC St. Pauli, then hit the road one week later to visit surpise relegation candidates VfL Wolfsburg for a pair of games which could very well be the deciding point in their hopes to make a return to European competition.