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Sports

Schalke progress to Champions League group stage

Schalke 04 have eased pressure on beleaguered coach Jens Keller by claiming a place in the UEFA Champions League group stage. Perhaps indicative of their season, however, it was hardly simple.

A brace from Adam Szalai and Julian Draxler's neat finish ensured Schalke progressed 4-3 on aggregate over Greek club PAOK, who hosted the match in front of just 600 fans Tuesday after being handed sanctions for crowd violence.

The pressure on Keller after his side's pitiful start to the season would have become almost unbearable had they failed to reach the lucrative group stage of the competition.

The sight of his Schalke predecessor and now PAOK coach Huub Stevens in the rival technical area would have done little to ease the tension.

But while Keller was grinning at the final whistle, he had little to smile about for much of a dour first half in which neither side showed much ambition.

It was Schalke midfielder Jermaine Jones who finally brought some quality to the encounter, helping hand his side the lead.

On 42 minutes, he lofted a precise ball into the area and onto the chest of an onrushing Atsuto Uchida. The Japanese right-back had the presence of mind to dink a lateral cross into the path of Szalai, and the Hungarian made no mistake from close range.

Stevens' half-time dismissal

Given what was otherwise a largely poor first half, it was perhaps better the home fans were in fact absent. At least Keller's night had improved; his side were winning and rival Stevens had been sent to the stands at half-time for protesting a handball in the lead up to the goal.

Still, the second half began far more promisingly for the hosts.

On 50 minutes, energetic winger Miroslav Stoch fired a warning of what was to come when he jinked past two Schalke markers and sent his cross within inches of a lunging Dimitris Salpingidis.

Three minutes later, the hosts had their goal. Spanish winger Lucas split a porous Schalke defense to find Stefanos Athanasiadis, who buried his shot past Timo Hildebrand and made it 1-1 and 2-2 on aggregate.

Schalke's task got harder on 64 minutes when Jones was sent off for a second yellow card.

Somehow, though, it was the visitors who scored next.

Teen tyros combine

Soon after arriving from the bench, Max Meyer, 17, threaded a pass through PAOK's defense and Draxler rounded Jacobo to put his side up 2-1.

Lucas threatened moments later, while Meyer's night ended just eight minutes after coming on when he was also taken off as Schalke looked to protect their lead.

Adam Szalai of Schalke celebrates after scoring his team's first goal against PAOK. (Photo: Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Adam Szalai's final goal killed off PAOK's challenge to leave Keller smiling after the final whistle.

It did not stop defender Kostas Katsouranis flicking a header over Hildebrand on 78 minutes, ensuring PAOK needed one more goal to progress.

A goal did come, but it was Schalke who scored it. With PAOK pushing forward, substitute Joel Matip put Draxler into space on the left.

He cut inside the area and then laid off for Szalai to claim his brace. It was hardly convincing but it was a victory, and Keller could not hide his joy as Schalke claimed a group-stage place - easing pressure on his position in the process.

Joining them in the competition proper were Arsenal, FC Basel and Steaua Bucharest. Also progressing were Austria Vienna, who claimed a place in the group stage for the first time in their history after a tense 4-3 aggregate win over Dinamo Zagreb.