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Schalke was in desperate need of a hero. Going into Saturday’s meeting with Hoffenheim, one of German soccer’s most historic clubs were on the brink of making unwanted history. Having failed to emerge victorious from any of their previous 30 Bundesliga games, Schalke were just 90 minutes away from equalling Tasmania Berlin’s record winless run of 31 matches from way back in 1965/66. It would have made for one of the worst days in the history of a club that has won seven German championships and finished as runners-up less than three years ago.
Arise, Matthew Hoppe. The 19-year-old American only made his Schalke debut in November, but it was he who assumed center stage at the weekend. A stunning hat-trick helped the Royal Blues to a 4-0 victory over Hoffenheim, sparing his side’s blushes and preserving Tasmania’s record. As for Hoppe, he became the first American to score three goals in a Bundesliga match in the competition’s history.
It was quite a moment for the teenager. Born in California, Hoppe spent two years at Barcelona’s Residency Academy in Arizona before moving to Schalke in 2019. He made his first-team bow in a 4-1 thrashing by Borussia Monchengladbach six weeks ago and had only started two Bundesliga games before being named in the line-up to face Hoffenheim. You can be sure he will retain his place in the XI against Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday.
Hoppe said after his historic hat-trick,
I don’t know how to feel. I’m excited, I’m happy the team got the win and that I got to contribute to it, it gives some confidence, some momentum. We have 19 games left, and hopefully, we can keep the wins coming and we can stay high in the first division.
That is certainly the aim, even if it is a modest one by Schalke’s standards. Finishing one place above the bottom three would have been seen as a huge disappointment at the start of the season. Offer that spot to Schalke now and they would bite your handoff. Despite Saturday’s success, Christian Gross’s side are four points away from the relegation play-off place and six adrift of safety. At -100, they remain joint-second favourites for the drop with DraftKings Sportsbook.
It feels like a long time ago now, but Schalke actually made an excellent start to last season. With David Wagner at the helm, the Royal Blues looked to be moving in the right direction. They rose as high as third place in the winter and were still part of the top-four race following a 2-0 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach on matchday 18.
Yet remarkably, that would be their final win of the campaign. Schalke collected just six points from the last 48 available. In the end, they finished 12th, closer to the bottom of the table than the final Champions League spot.
The Schalke hierarchy hoped the summer break would provide Wagner and his players an opportunity to recharge their batteries and put that dismal run behind them. Instead, the pause compounded the problems. With the coronavirus pandemic hitting Schalke in the pocket, Weston McKennie, Jonjoe Kenny, Daniel Caligiuri, and Alexander Nubel all moved on before the start of the season. Sebastian Rudy, Mark Uth, and Ralf Fahrmann returned from loan spells but all three players will have questioned how much Wagner really wanted them.
Schalke opened the season with an 8-0 demolition by Bayern Munich, and a 3-1 loss to Werder Bremen a week later brought the curtain down on Wagner’s tenure. The former Huddersfield Town manager had proven himself incapable of turning the situation around. He was also guilty of sending out mixed messages, publicly promoting the type of proactive and attacking soccer that his team seemed incapable of producing week after week.
Manuel Baum replaced Wagner in the dugout at the Veltins-Arena, but he was unable to instigate an improvement. Schalke failed to win any of his 10 games at the helm, paving the way for another change last month. In came the aforementioned Gross, an experienced Swiss coach who prevented Schalke from equalling Tasmania Berlin’s 31-game run on Saturday. The 66-year-old hopes that will prove to be a turning point in Schalke’s season.
“A lot of things went our way today, which I’m aware of,” he said after the Hoffenheim win. “I don’t want this to take away from the good moments from the game though. We will look to build on this and we know we’ve got plenty of tough games to come. Our confidence will hopefully grow after this win.”
Everyone associated with Schalke was relieved by Saturday’s win, but it would be a mistake for the club to assume they are now out of the woods. Schalke remains in a dismal position, and one win in 15 league games this season is hardly worthy of celebration. Even if they do stay up, this could end up being the Royal Blues’ worst top-flight season since they did go down in 1987/88.
Still, Saturday’s win could give them something to build on. The emergence of Hoppe is a major boost, with the teenager able to play with the sort of fearless attitude that is harder to come by among seasoned professionals who have endured more defeats than they would care to remember in the last 12 months. Gross was a left-field pick to succeed Baum, having not managed a European club since 2012, but his experience and know-how could be exactly what Schalke needs. Tasmania Berlin is certainly glad he was able to oversee victory at the weekend.
“We are so proud of our record,” Almir Numic, Tasmania’s president, told the New York Times last week. “Of course, for the players at the time it would not have been a happy experience, but now we can step back and laugh about it. It is part of our identity.”
Schalke did not want it to be part of theirs. They succeeded in avoiding that ignominious fate, but there is plenty more work to be done at the Veltins-Arena this season.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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