A second-half solo goal from Daniel Caligiuri gave Schalke a 1-0 win away at struggling Mainz to put the Royal Blues four points clear of Borussia Dortmund. But they were forced to withstand huge pressure late on.
Mainz 0-1 Schalke
As smoke from flares set off by Schalke's "Ultras Gelsenkirchen" in the away end drifted across the newly-laid pitch in Mainz, visibility was so impaired that referee Felix Brych was forced to delay kick-off by six minutes.
Even when play did get underway, there was precious little to see in an attritional first half. Mainz's Robin Quaison came closest to opening the scoring with a clever turn and shot which was deflected just wide.
Otherwise, the opening period was characterized by poor passing from both sides as the teams cancelled each other out. Indeed, every fourth pass on both sides ended up with the opposition.
"Both teams are fighting physically to cancel each other out, leaving no place for creativity and individuality," analyzed former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Matthias Sammer for broadcaster Eurosport — "It's destructive football."
"We just didn't manage to get any grip on the game in the first half," commented Domenico Tedesco post-match. "Our opponents were very aggressive – Mainz did that very well."
But given the relative positions of the two teams in the league table, it was curious that Tedesco had opted to leave some of his most creative players on the bench.
Leon Goretzka, Max Meyer and Yehven Konoplaynka all watched on as the Royal Blues were forced into long balls up to the ineffective Guido Burgstaller, while Sandro Schwarz's Zero-Fivers pressed aggressively in midfield.
"Goretzka would bring tempo, individuality and class to the game," commented Sammer as the Bayern-bound midfielder warmed up at half-time. "He has the ability to make the most of one-on-one situations."
Caligiuri unlocks Mainz
And indeed, at the start of the second half, with the smoke from the away end now going upwards instead of across the pitch, the 30,000 fans inside the OPEL Arena were able to see precisely that.
First, the 23-year-old dribbled dangerously towards the Mainz box but hesitated on his shot. But moments later, Caligiuri made no such mistake. Picking up the ball midway inside the Mainz half, the German-Italian winger beat three defenders before curling his shot into the bottom corner.
It was individual, it was creative and it was class — just what the doctor ordered.
Late Mainz pressure
But the hosts weren't deterred. Even before Caligiuri's goal, Daniel Brosinki had shot wide after a good move down the right, and Mainz continued to create the better chances after going behind.
Either side of passionate appeals for a penalty after Alexandru Maxim's shot appeared to strike Nabil Bentaleb's arm, Ralf Fährmann was forced into action in the visitors' goal. First, the Schalke captain parried Suar Serdar's shot before, with just six minutes to play, pulling off a stunning save to deny Levin Öztunali.
"Schieß ein Tor!" screamed the Mainz fans over and over again "Score a goal!" And their team responded, pressing forward into five minutes of injury time but it wasn't enough as Schalke held on for all three points.
"We needed ideas, character and mentality," said Tedesco. "And that's what the lads showed at the end."