Champions League progress gives Schmidt and Di Matteo stamp of approval

By Kevin Hatchard

A quarter of the Champions League’s last 16 teams hail from Germany, and Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp says the fact his side are currently 14th in the German top flight shows just how strong the Bundesliga is.

Dortmund and Bayern Munich are obvious standard-bearers, but the presence of Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke in the knockout phase is a further boost to a country still glowing from a glorious World Cup campaign.

Represent. There will be four German teams in the knock out stages of the Champions League. With Bayern Leverkusen and Schalke joining Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

Represent. There will be four German teams in the knock out stages of the Champions League. With Bayern Leverkusen and Schalke joining Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

Bayer Leverkusen are in the first season of what they hope will be a successful spell under new coach Roger Schmidt, and the former Red Bull Salzburg boss has made a fine start. Die Werkself have employed an intense pressing game and they attack relentlessly, sometimes to the detriment of their defensive shape. Schmidt has admitted his side haven’t always had the results their performances have deserved, and finding the right balance between attack and defence will surely be the key to whether Schmidt has a long and fruitful tenure at the BayArena.

On Tuesday Bayer were pipped to top spot in their Champions League group by Monaco, as the resurgent Monegasques beat Zenit in a do-or-die clash. Leverkusen played out a goalless draw at Benfica. The trip to Portugal proved to be a disappointing denouement to the section for several reasons: Bayer failed to score against a weakened Benfica side with nothing to play for, and key defender Omer Toprak will be suspended for the first leg of the last-16 tie after he was sent off.

Despite that slip-up, Bayer can be pleased with their progress. The two wins against Zenit were hugely impressive, especially the success in Russia, which featured a trademark long-range goal from the excellent Heung-Min Son.

It’s effectively job done for Bayer in the Champions League. They have surely hit the target Schmidt was set pre-season. Further progress isn’t out of the question though – if Bayer can learn to be more clinical in front of goal, they could give some of the group winners a run for their money.

Schalke’s progress to the last 16 was frankly less impressive, as they scraped into the knockout phase with a 1-0 win at Maribor. The collection of two points from the first two group games contributed to the dismissal of coach Jens Keller, and although his successor Roberto Di Matteo is starting to deliver consistent results in the Bundesliga, the Champions League performances under the Italian have fluctuated wildly.

Second. Di Matteo's Schalke finished second  in Group G behind his former employers Chelsea.

Second. Di Matteo’s Schalke finished second in Group G behind his former employers Chelsea.

Di Matteo’s first UCL game in charge was a chaotic 4-3 home victory against Sporting Lisbon. Schalke blew a 3-1 lead against ten men, and needed a debatable last-gasp penalty to win the game. The reverse fixture was even worse, as S04 defended horribly in a 4-2 defeat. Di Matteo’s reunion with his beloved Chelsea proved ghastly, as Jose Mourinho’s side strolled to a 5-0 win. It was like Di Matteo going to a school reunion and finding out that everyone in his class had been more successful.

That left Schalke needing a win in Slovenia against Maribor to progress, and they edged it 1-0 thanks to a second-half goal from Max Meyer. It was tight and tense (Atsuto Uchida had to clear off the line early on), but Schalke did just enough, as Chelsea did them a favour elsewhere by beating Sporting 3-1.

I fear for Schalke in the knockout round if they draw one of the big boys, and they have a persistent inferiority complex against elite teams. However, getting this far has given Di Matteo breathing space at a club that doesn’t always support its coaches fully, and it could give the Gelsenkirchen-based side the boost they need to qualify for next season’s competition.

How far do you see the German teams in the Champions League going?

Follow @kevinhatchard

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