Few teams in the history of the Champions League have received as big a boost between the group stages and knockout phase as Galatasaray. Little was expected of the Turkish champions having only survived in the competition past the New Year after finishing above Romanian minnows Cluj on the basis of the results between the two sides.
But events since have raised the excitement and expectations around the club exponentially.
The protracted signing of Wesley Sneijder from Internazionale was already a huge statement of intent, but to follow that up with the capture of the defining player in last year’s Champions League, Didier Drogba, was surely beyond most Galatasaray fans’ wildest dreams.
Understandably, veteran coach Fatih Terim has been trying to play down the notion that Galatasaray are now strong favorites to get the better of Schalke in their round-of-16 tie.
“There's a perception that because we have Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba we'll advance to the next round comfortably,” he said, according to UEFA’s website. “Please be aware that both players didn't play for a few months [before signing].
“My biggest wish is to benefit from their experience in the UEFA Champions League. Sneijder is a key player with his intelligence. Both he and Drogba are adapting fast to their team-mates and this makes me very happy.”
Drogba only made his debut off the bench for Galatasaray last Friday and Terim revealed that he will make a late decision on whether the 34-year-old will start the first leg at the Turk Telekom Arena.
In contrast to Galatasaray, Schalke come into the tie at a low ebb. Although they were impressive in the Champions league group stages, Schalke’s poor Bundesliga form prompted a change in coach in mid-December with Huub Stevens being sacked and Jens Keller coming in on an interim basis.
The change has not had the desired effect, with only one win being recorded since Stevens took charge. But Keller was trying to look at the positives ahead of the tie.
“We got a point in our last match [at Mainz], showing that we can come back if we fall behind,” he said. “Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has recovered and he will certainly make a big contribution for us. We just can't wait for the match tomorrow. Galatasaray are serious opponents. We have analysed them closely and know how to overcome them.”
Huntelaar’s return from a blood clot in his eye comes at a good time given the absence of fellow-striker Ciprian Marica. The Romanian joins Atsuto Ichida, Ibrahim Afellay, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Christoph Moritz and Lars Unnerstall on the injured list.
Midfielder Raffael is cup-tied, but fellow January signing Michel Bastos is expected to feature.
D: Eboue, Nounkeu, Kaya, Riera
M: Altintop, Melo, Selcuk
F: Drogba, Yilmaz
D: Hoger, Howedes, Matip, Fuchs
M: Jones, Neustadter
Farfan, Draxler, Bastos
PredictionThe tie has taken on a very different complexion since the draw was made back in December. At the time, Schalke likely thought they had been highly fortunate with their opponents, but not so now.
Galatasaray warmed up for Schalke in encouraging manner on Friday. Droga scored just five minutes into his debut with a typically bullish header and then both the Ivorian and Sneijder played a part in creating a goal for Burak Yilmaz. The Turkey striker has almost been forgotten with Galatasaray’s big signings, but Yilmaz was the joint-top scorer in the Champions League group phase with six goals.
Drogba and Sneijder bring a wealth of European experience and there are also seasoned campaigners in the midfield duo of Hamit Altintop and Felipe Melo.
A weakness for Galatasaray is at full back where Emanuel Eboue and Albert Riera are far better going forward than defensively. With Schalke having Jefferson Farfan and Bastos—who has scored three goals in as many appearances since his arrival—on the flanks, it is an area that the Germans must look to exploit.
Galatasaray should take a lead from the home tie, but Schalke could well get an away goal to keep the tie firmly alive.
Galatasaray 2-1 Schalke
Where to watch: The first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie will kick-off from the Turk Telekom Arena at 2.45 p.m. eastern time. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel, with a live stream available on Fox Soccer 2Go.