Jens Keller is without Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan, Tranquillo Barnetta and Ibrahim Afellay, so Raffael should come in behind Ciprian Marica in attack, with Julian Draxler moving to the right wing. Marco Hoger will replace the suspended Roman Neustadter in midfield.
Bayer Leverkusen’s management team of Sami Hyypia and Sascha Lewandowski are without the suspended Stefan Reinartz, so Gonzalo Castro is likely to drop back into midfield, with Sidney Sam replacing him in attack. In defence, Michal Kadlec will replace the also suspended Sebastian Boenisch at left back, while Daniel Schwaab may continue to get the nod ahead of Omer Toprak.
With six games to go in the Bundesliga the title may be over but the competition for Champions League places is still alive. Leverkusen in 3rd currently have a 4 point lead over 5th placed Freiburg, who are level on points with Schalke but trail on goal difference. With Freiburg having played a game more, Schalke can put clear air between themselves and 5th place with a victory, whereas a win for Leverkusen would give them a 7 point cushion and all but confirm their place in the top four.
4-2-3-1 vs 4-1-2-3
This has become a common tactical contest, with 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3 now Europe’s most popular formations. However due to the tactics’ popularity they are frequently misused or poorly implemented. Yet Schalke and Leverkusen are well rehearsed in their systems, and more importantly that have the attacking players to fulfil required roles. With two opposing midfield triangles space is in the middle of the pitch is at a premium, so these contests are usually decided by the quality of the wide players.
Playing style is also important, and in this respect the pattern of the game will be decided – Schalke, as the home side and the natural aggressor, will see more of the ball and take the game to their opponents, whilst Leverkusen predominantly play on the counter attack. Their selections reflect this – Schalke’s full backs are far more ambitious than their opposite numbers. Similarly Jermaine Jones and Raffael will look to get forward for the home side, whereas only Castro is likely to support attacks from Leverkusen’s midfield.
Neither team is at full strength in this area. For Schalke, Farfan’s injury has necessitated Draxler returning to the wing, whilst Castro is likely to be needed in midfield and replaced by Sam on Leverkusen’s right. These changes, coupled with the identity of the players involved, should result in an interesting mirroring of width.
Schalke usually possess direct wing play on both flanks, but will miss Farfan’s pace and goalscoring threat. In his place however Draxler may offer a greater threat between the lines having become adept in his new central role. This should give Schalke a separate threat – width and pace on the left and narrowness and interplay on the right.
Leverkusen also possess pace in Sam and Andre Schurrle, although both players again offer different threats. Sam is a natural winger and will look to attack Christian Fuchs, whereas Schurrle has become more used to taking up central positions to maximise his influence. This should mirror Schalke – width down Leverkusen’s right flank and narrowness on their left.
As a result expect Kadlec and, particularly, Atsuto Uchida to provide an attacking influence.
This is only a factor for Schalke, with Leverkusen content with moving the ball forward quickly rather than concentrating on ball retention. Nevertheless the away side’s tactics only make the task more important, as giving away possession easily gives Schalke’s opponents the chance to attack. Therefore Hoger has a great deal of responsibility alongside Jones. Neustadter, the man Hoger replaces, is Schalke’s most frequent passer of the ball and the man that helps them control possession in the opponents half by offering an outlet to the attacking players ahead. Hoger is less refined but will be required to perform a similar task – reliable ball retention from the base of midfield.
Both teams are in decent form which makes this a difficult game to predict. The six most recent games between the sides has seen three victories apiece, all to nil, which demonstrates the importance of the game’s pattern – if Schalke can maintain a threat in attack they can pin their opponents in and cause them problems, yet if Leverkusen’s defence hold firm and they find direct passes to their attacking trio, the visitors could succeed on the counter.
There is a wider context to this game. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are the league’s ‘big two’, and unlikely to be challenged any time soon, so Schalke and Leverkusen are competing to be recognised as the best of the rest.