SCHALKE TAKE POINT IN AUGSBURG
Jermaine Jones played the full 90 minutes in Schalke's midfield on Sunday afternoon in Augsburg, as a pair of first-half goals saw the teams each earn a useful, but overall disappointing share of the spoils.
Both teams were feeling a considerable amount of pressure prior to the game, albeit for vastly different reasons.
Schalke's once-safe lead over Borussia Mönchengladbach in the race for third place and automatic qualification to the Champions League group stages had been whittled down to a single point, due to their slow decline in league play over the last month.
Sitting 12 places below in the standings at kickoff, Augsburg were guaranteed a safe place free from the relegation places for at least one more week, however a loss would still leave them in position to be overtaken by either Cologne or Hertha in the final games of the season.
Schalke's defense were hit with the injuries of defenders Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Christian Fuchs, and both were certainly missed as a shaky start almost cost the team dearly.
The visitors were the first to push forward just after the opening whistle, after Chinedu Obasi collected a deflected ball just inside the Augsburg half of the field, charged up the left and cut inside just before hitting Jefferson Farfan on the right side with a cross. The Peruvian forward immediately knocked a prospective pass forward into the six-yard box for any onrushing attackers that might have read the play, however the only person nearby was Augsburg keeper Simon Jentzsch who had no problems to scoop it up.
Augsburg countered in the fifth minute as Koo Ja-Cheol ran onto a high lobbed pass from Daniel Baier and sprang into the right side of the area, beating Benedikt Höwedes on the way towards goal. Isolated in a one-on-one with Schalke keeper Lars Unnerstall, his near-post shot was blocked out, setting up a corner.
Marcel Ndjeng hit the ensuing set piece well, aiming for the edge of the six-yard box where central defender Sebastian Langkamp rose high to head it off the underside of the crossbar and over the line for the lead.
Schalke were lucky to not be down by more, as a chaotic moment in the defense after 11 minutes left the ball a sitting duck for Axel Bellinghausen, although luckily Unnerstall was able to block the subsequent shot to the corner.
The vast majority of the first half saw Schalke fall victim to consistently misplaced passing and a noticeable lack of cool precision, with Augsburg firmly in the driver's seat. The home fans took no objection, knowing that a victory, however narrow, would almost certainly guarantee their safety in the league.
Despite their profligacy going forward, their pieced together defense did hold strong in the subsequent minutes, ultimately giving the front end the chance to finally wake up and equalize several minutes before the half.
In the 38th minute, a long ball from Joel Matip was misjudged by Langkamp, allowing Dutch maestro Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to streak forward uncontested toward goal. With only Jentzsch to beat, he struck his shot from just inside the box to the middle of goal, putting the game back on even terms.
Augsburg nearly responded two minutes later, as Koo sent Bellinghausen behind the defense into the left side of the six-yard box, where his near-post attempt was just deflected by Unnerstall, and rolled in front of the open net where no attacking players were in position to knock it in.
The half ended on a somewhat sour note for the Königsblauen, as Christoph Metzelder picked up a yellow for a collision with Baier, and ended up having to leave the game with a slight injury.
Augsburg stayed on the attack after the break, and were inches from pulling ahead five minutes after the restart. Following a foul by Matip on Hajime Hosogai just outside the left edge of the penalty area, Ndjeng fired a free kick through the six-yard box which nearly snuck in at the far post, practically grazing the upright.
On the hour mark, Schalke defender Sergio Escudero ended a string of passes on the attacking end with a shot on the turn towards the lower right corner that rolled barely wide, however even had it put it on target, it would have been called back for offside.
Augsburg striker Torsten Oehrl was dangerously close two minutes later with a low shot from the left edge of the six-yard box towards the far lower corner, then were even closer three minutes afterwards as Ndjeng's snap header from a Bellinghausen cross was just inches wide of the mark.
Jones nearly played the hero with 17 minutes remaining in regulation, barely deflecting a long free kick from Farfan with a glancing header several yards out from goal, forcing Jentzsch to save the day with a reflex block and grab.
With ten minutes left, Jones, who had largely refrained from his usual rough & tumble play in the midfield, was shown yellow for a fifth straight game for a rather malicious-looking takedown of Hosogai, however his actions moments later justifiably drew a much more derisive reaction from the audience.
Augsburg defender Matthias Ostrzolek bumped the American near the sideline, at which point Jones fell to the ground clutching his head. The referee fell for the ruse and awarded a free kick to Schalke, at which point Oehrl lost his cool, and was shown a yellow card for his protests.
At that point, the sold-out crowd of 30,660, who at times already seemed more interested in booing the opposition or officials than cheering on their own team, had no more patience and filled the stadium with a deafening chorus of whistles and jeers for much of the remaining time.
The final minutes of the game saw little style, substance or scoring opportunities from either team, with an increasingly chippy approach on the field from both teams fortunately being brought to an end by the final whistle after one minute of added time.
The split points helps both teams in their respective quests, although still leaves more work to be done in the final two games of the season. Augsburg have a four-point gap ahead of 16th place and would need an unlikely turn of events to fall into the relegation playoff spot.
Schalke increase their lead ahead of Borussia Mönchengladbach to two points, and could feasibly lock up third place on Saturday when they host struggling Hertha in Gelsenkirchen.