On Tuesday, Estadio Mestalla in Valencia will host a match out of the nightmares of those who prefer the old European Cup format. When men were men and wheels had corners, only teams that won their leagues qualified for UEFA's premier competition. But then times change, we no longer walk barefoot in the show, and the concept of a cup competition fades into a more inclusive league. As a result, Champions League has 76 participants and we're left with a knock-out phase match-up of Germany's runners-up and Spain's third place side.
For Schalke 04 and Valencia - two teams that faced dismantling and rebuilding projects this summer - getting this far is an accomplishment. Felix Magath sold nearly the entire Schalke defense while losing leading goal scorer Kevin Kuranyi. To compensate, Schalke brought in Christoph Metzelder, Jose Manuel Jurado, Raúl and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar only to see the team entrenched in the drop zone throughout the season's opening months. Now up to 10th in the Bundesliga, Schalke has renewed aspirations for Europe, though a return to Champions League is beyond their reach.
Valencia's rebuilding has seen no such downturns, and given the dire need Los Che had to sell their stars - getting rid of payroll while garnering a transfer fee - 2010-11 has been an unexpected success. Gone were David Villa, David Silva, Carlos Marchena and Nikola Zigic. In came €77 million, money that went toward the acquisitions of Roberto Soldado, Aritz Aduriz, and Alberto Costa (as well as paying servicing debt). Thus it was quite a surprise that Valencia was an earlier leader in the Spanish Primera. Though they have since slipped off the pace of Barcelona and Real Madrid, Valencia are still third - where they finished last year - and on pace to cut into the 25 point gap that separated them from Real Madrid last season.
Unfortunately, the story of two scuffling clubs rarely makes for a compelling Champions League match-up. When you think of Europe's premier club tournament, you don't think of a mid-table Bundesliga team facing a second-tier Spanish power, let alone two that gutted their player pool eight months before. Those types of teams are supposed to be sifted out in group stage, but here we are, and with the help of a great job by Unai Emery and a Group B that saw Lyon and Benfica play as shadows of their 2009-10 selves, we're left waiting for Schalke and Valencia to kick-off at the Mestalla on Tuesday.
Thankfully, Schalke and Valencia's recent play will help augment the absence of European royalty. Since 2011 dawned, Valencia has not lost in the Primera Division, posting a 6-0-1 record that's helped them vault Villarreal and regain third place. While Schalke has failed to post similar results (2-2-1 since the Bundesliga restarted), results at Hannover (1-0 win) and rival Borussia Dortuman (0-0) show the capability of Magath's club.
Schalke has the players to threaten, should you let them, with Jefferson Farfán providing width (down the right) that can stretch a defense, opening up space in the middle for Huntelaar and Raúl, playing in Spain for the first time since moving from Real Madrid this summer. From midfield, Jurado lurks while recently acquired Anthony Annan bolsters, sitting in front of a central defense pairing of Metzelder and Benedikt Höwedes. It's a defense that's helped Schalke limit their opponents to two goals allowed in their last eight matches, a stretch that includes shutouts against Bayern Munich, Hannover, and Borussia Dortmund.
Schalke's key, however, will be goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. As the German international reinforced in last Friday's Rieverderby, Neuer is capable of stealing results, preventing Borussia Dortmund from a deserved three points. With Schalke having only allowed three goals in six Champions League matches (and presumably content with a scoreless draw), Neuer would be a nearly impenetrable last line of defense behind a team intent on taking the tie back to Gelsenkirchen even.
To combat that, Emery may need to either insert a second striker (while keeping the width Joaquin and Pablo Hernández provide on the flanks) or start his 4-2-3-1 while using Ever Banega as one of the pivots. Still, this season it's becoming difficult to predict who Emery will start in a given match. Part of the success Valencia's experienced this season stems from Emery's willingness to mix and match. Whereas Magath has settled into a 4-4-2 with Schalke, Emery could employ any number of approaches, including Alejandro Dominguez at the top of a diamond, behind Soldado and Aduriz. That unpredictability - the inability to have a stationary target to set-up against - may also inform Magath's decision to play for the second leg.
Of course, it's always dangerous playing for a 0-0 on the road in Champions League, where one goal allowed at home doubles the opposition's rewards. Magath knows this and, according to quotes published on UEFA.com, wants to avoid it.
"Valencia as a team are similar to Lyon but stronger in attack," he said, alluding to how Emery sets-up his team. "We are hoping to get a goal to give ourselves a better chance in the second leg."
Schalke lost 1-0 at Stade Gerland in group play, their only loss in route to first place in Group B. On Tuesday, they will have to improve on that performance. Even though they subsequently beat Lyon 3-0 at Veltins-Arena, they're unlikely to get such passivity from Valencia. As Magath hinted, Schalke is stepping up in competition on Tuesday, something that could lead them to take the opportunities they're given and, if none are presented, wait for friendlier confines before trying to take control of the match.