Leverkusen came out on top in the 'six-pointer' at the top of the table with Schalke winless for two consecutive weekends. Roger Schmidt's side men won through a first-half goal from Karim Bellarabi.
Schalke 0-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Roger Schmidt's team has morphed into something different these days. The extraordinary, high-pressure defending and intense attacking style, transferred from his tenure at Red Bull Salzburg, has been put back on the shelf for now.
A mature performance in the 1-0 win over Schalke was the latest example of his team finding the balance between potent attacking football and keeping the door shut at the back. Leverkusen has recorded six clean sheets in their last seven games - an improvement that emerged after the nine goals conceded in three games against Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg and Augsburg, respectively.
Marshaled by Emir Spahic and Kyriakos Papadopolous - who was replaced directly for Omer Toprak at the interval - Leverkusen's defense has noticeably toughened up. But with consistent performers in Wendell and Roberto Hillbert at full-back, the ever-impressive Bernd Leno in goal and a solid shield of Gonzalo Castro, Schmidt has tightened the gaps in Leverkusen's drive towards the Champions League spots.
Aside from their spectacular efforts in Madrid a fortnight ago, Schalke has only managed one win in their last five league games. The only change for Roberto Di Matteo's side was Kaan Ayhan's inclusion in place of the suspended captain Benedikt Höwedes, whilst Sead Kolasinac and Jefferson Farfan were named on the bench for the first time this season.
Karim kills strong Schalke start
Leverkusen, meanwhile, had three switches from last week's win over Stuttgart with Stefan Kiessling returning to the attack in place of Josip Drmic who bagged a double last time out. Julian Brandt was handed a deserved opportunity to show his talents, as Hakan Calhangolu sat on the bench at the Veltins-Arena.
Schalke's positive and bright tempo early on was inspired by the duo of Leroy Sane and Max Meyer. The two combined wonderfully in their best chance after 11 minutes. The cross from Christian Fuchs, finished by Huntelaar, was blocked by Bernd Leno.
Some five minutes later, Karim Bellarabi was denied by the under-pressure Timon Wellenreuther who reacted well to the drive from the Leverkusen winger. Ten minutes before half-time, Bellarabi beat the 19-year-old, smashing the ball from a cute angle high into the net for his 11th goal of the season.
Surprisingly, Di Matteo's tinker before the break saw academy graduate Sane come off, with replacement Kevin-Prince Boateng offering a more physical presence in attack as the Royal Blues shifted more to the long-ball game.
Schalke felt hard done by when Toprak's touch back to Leno on 53 minutes wasn't deemed to be an illegal back-pass by Peter Gagelmann. A minute later, Spahic's near-post header was well saved by Wellenreuther.
Leverkusen very well could have added a second later in the match, leaving Jefferson Farfan's return to the Schalke side after 344 days out a fruitless outing. Schmidt's side move temporarily into third - Borussia Mönchengladbach face Bayern Munich tomorrow - but extend the gap between them and Schalke to six points.