With current and future Germany stalwarts Benedikt Howedes, Julian Draxler, Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer settled into an underachieving Schalke side, former Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo looks to have been handed a helluva break after being named manager at Veltins-Arena.
Jens Keller was given the chop following the Gelsenkirchen outfit’s patchy start to the 2014/15 Bundesliga campaign, which has featured two wins, two draws and three losses thus far.
However, after securing Champions League qualification by placing third in Germany’s top flight last term, behind Bundesliga behemoths FC Bayern Munchen and Borussia Dortmund, Schalke look big at evens to finish no worse than fourth this season, despite their poor early form.
Die Knappen claimed just two points from their first four fixtures of this term’s league campaign under Keller, but one came against Pep Guardiola’s champions and they’ve not been nearly as bad since.
Victories over Werder Bremen and Dortmund had Schalke back on something of an even keel prior to the 1-1 draw at home to Slovakia’s Maribor in the Champions League, which, allied with a 2-1 loss at Hoffenheim, seemed to seal Keller’s fate.
They’re only four points behind fourth-placed Bayer Leverkusen with over three-quarters of the season gone though, while Hoffenheim and Borussia Monchengladbach, in second and third, are only a draw better off.
Making up such a meagre margin is far from beyond Di Matteo and his squad, which also includes World Cup 2014 stars Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Atsuto Uchida and Eric Maxim Choupa-Moting.
That being said, what will really motivate the ex-Blues boss is the prospect of going to-toe-toe with Jose Mourinho’s west Londoners for top spot in Champions League Group G.
Schalke are fancied at 2/5 to qualify for the last 16 alongside Chelsea, ahead of 9/4 shots Sporting.
Having taken a point off Mourinho’s men at Stamford Bridge, and with six on offer against the Portuguese club over the next two Champions League gameweeks, Schalke can’t be ruled out at 6/1 to top the group outright.
Roman Abramovich sacked Di Matteo just six months after the Italian claimed the ultimate prize for the Russian oligarch, the 2011/12 Champions League trophy. Some poetic justice may be in order.