Pitchside Europe

Schalke struggling to stop freefalling

Three months is a long time in football.

Back in October when Schalke 04 won at arch rivals Borussia Dortmund in the Ruhr Valley Derby, life looked rosy for the Royal Blues. They were third in the Bundesliga, seven points behind leaders Bayern Munich and just two behind surprise package Eintracht Frankfurt. Now they're in freefall, with the gap to Bayern now 22 points, and champions Dortmund still 10 points away.

Dutchman Huub Stevens, voted coach of the last century in his first spell at the club, was sacked just before Christmas and since then star player Lewis Holtby has jumped ship to join Tottenham Hotspur, seduced by the big money in the Premier League.

New coach Jens Keller hasn't been able to stop the rot, and the dramatic 5-4 win over Hannover in the first Bundesliga match of the new year just papered over the cracks.

Last Saturday Schalke hit a new low when they lost at home to rock bottom Greuther Furth. Fans booed and whistled during and after the smash-and-grab defeat to a last-minute goal which looked offside. It was only the Bavarians' second win in the first Bundesliga campaign in their history, and their first in 17 attempts.

When Sporting Director Horst Heldt sacked Stevens in December he explained: "The Bundesliga is our daily bread and there we were well behind expectations."

If that is Heldt's criteria, and the bad results continue, it begs the question: just how long has Keller got left in the job?" Stevens was sacked after a run of six games without a win including four defeats, but nothing much has changed.

Things could go from bad to worse this Saturday when they travel to Munich to face an irresistible Bayern. To compound matters, Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will miss out with an eye injury while German international Julian Draxler is doubtful. Schalke's season is in serious danger of imploding as eleven days later there's the small matter of an intimidating trip to Istanbul for the Champions League last 16 first leg tie against Galatasaray.

Despite the humiliating defeat to Greuther Furth, Heldt has given Keller the fabled vote of confidence.

"We will continue with Jens Keller till the end of the season, we took that decision and announced it and that will not change," Heldt insisted.

And there's a very good reason for this. Keller is Heldt's man. To sack him would be to admit that Heldt made a mistake. The problem is that Schalke fans have turned against Keller as Heldt knows full well.

"It is really sad that Jens wasn't given a chance and hasn' t been accepted," Heldt said.

"It is a situation we have to deal with which we've caused ourselves. That parts of the media and public opinion didn't give him a chance is sad because he is a young German coach we needed to give a chance. That for me is not understandable."

Keller also received support from defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones who gave a lively interview straight after the Greuther Furth defeat.

"I've been at Schalke for six years," said Jones, "and I've seen how nearly every head coach who has worked here has been criticised from very early on.It's impossible to work at this club. There's always trouble. The fans are destroying us. It's a pity. The team is united and working together well. "

The combative midfielder's fighting talk has been backed up by some of their transfer business. The loan signings of two Brazilians Michel Bastos and Raffael are positives after losing Holtby. Fans, though, would have preferred defensive back up, with Greek international defender Kyriakos Papadopoulous has been out since November. Dutch winger Ibrahim Affelay, meanwhile, is reported not to be impressed by the club's treatment of his thigh injury.

Keller had a good reputation as the reserve coach but his only previous Bundesliga record at Stuttgart two years ago is underwhelming. He only lasted two months after winning just two of his nine games.

On his appointment, the 42-year-old Keller was refreshingly honest - maybe too honest.

"Obviously I was surprised," Keller admitted about getting the job, "but being part of one of the big European leagues is not something you turn down."

Is he a coach quite simply out of his depth or is he, as some observers have remarked, just the wrong coach at wrong time? One irony is that Keller's name in German means "cellar" and that's exactly where Schalke fans are worried they're heading after just one win in their last nine Bundesliga games.

Lurking just around the corner, there's a daunting home game against arch rivals Dortmund at the start of March. The champions have made the best Bundesliga start to the New Year and will be already smelling blood. But will Keller still be in a job come the fiercest Derby in the Bundesliga ?

Tony Jeffers, Eurosport commentator