Felix Magath brings his Wolfsburg team to Schalke, the club that recently fired him, on Saturday with emotions still running high among some players who feel they got a raw deal from the disciplinarian coach.
Felix will need a better disguise at Schalke this weekend
It may be far too early to say how much influence new coach Ralf Rangnick will have over Schalke 04's future fortunes but the initial signs are that the Royal Blues have turned a corner in both playing style and attitude.
Even though he has been in charge for just two games, Schalke seem to be playing with a lot more freedom and under a great deal less pressure than they did when coached by Rangnick's predecessor Felix Magath, who brings his Wolfsburg team to Gelsenkirchen on Saturday.
Magath, who was fired three weeks ago after overseeing an underwhelming campaign which saw Schalke spend most of the early months battling against relegation, has suffered the fate of many coaches who are removed from their position in the days which have followed his dismissal. No sooner had he departed for Wolfsburg that those players he allegedly ostracized and frustrated began having their say.
"The psychological pressure of Mr. Magath has gone and now we are enjoying ourselves again at Schalke," Peruvian striker Jefferson Farfan told Sport Bild this week. "Until recently, a lot of players lived in fear."
"The new coach is trying to construct a relationship of faith with the players," he said. "The problems were undeniable. The time under Magath was a huge strain psychologically.” Farfan was consistently linked to other clubs during Magath's tenure, a reflection perhaps of his willingness to get away and/or his coach's wish to get rid of him.
Hans Sarpei and Alexander Baumjohann, two members of the Schalke team which triumphed 5-2 over European champions Inter Milan on Tuesday night, have also spoken out about the Magath regime which typically focused on tough training and discipline.
"You never forget," Sarpei told reporters at the San Siro after the Champions League quarter-final first leg when asked about his treatment by Magath. Both Sarpei and Baumjohann were forced to play with the reserves after the coach deemed them to be underperforming. "Football is about ups and downs," he added. "I have played well under the new coach and we've won two games."
"I didn't have an easy time under Magath, but Rangnick has talked to me and built me up again," echoed Baumjohann, who - along with Sarpei - is in line to start against Wolfsburg on Saturday.
Rangnick's return has freed minds and bodies
Edu's return to the center paid dividends for Schalke in Italy
It is not only the mental shackles which appear to have been removed, as the win against Inter and the previous week's default Bundesliga victory over St. Pauli have shown. Schalke's feet seem to be free of the restraints that stymied their creativity at times this season. They attacked with verve and confidence in Italy with striker Edu, restored to a central role from Magath's preferred position for him on the wing, showing the most abandon by scoring two goals.
Schalke also looked fluid and penetrative against St. Pauli in the league last weekend and were good value for the 2-0 win in the game which ended prematurely when the assistant referee was hit by a fan's beer cup in the 88th minute.
The feel-good factor the team is experiencing under their new coach will be put to the test against Magath's Wolves this weekend with emotions running high ahead of the clash that brings players with something to prove back into contact with the coach who wronged them so soon after they went their separate ways.
Magath more concerned with keeping Wolves up
Wolfsburg travel to Gelsenkirchen on the cusp of a relegation fight and the feeling among some of the Schalke players appears to be one of a willingness to exacerbate Magath's problems. Farfan went as far as to suggest in his interview with Sport Bild that Schalke, who are now safe from the drop in tenth place, will be treating Saturday's match like a cup final.
Magath knows the challenge he faces to save Wolfsburg is big
Wolfsburg ought to be treating this and all their remaining matches with that sort of importance, but for different reasons.The Wolves have been in a holding pattern far down the table for most of the campaign and Magath is the third coach to be handed the task of keeping them in the Bundesliga's top flight.
After the ill-starred and short tenure of former England and FC Twente boss Steve McClaren, who instigated the slide, his assistant Pierre Littbarski was charged with arresting the decline. However, the ex-German international winger could only watch the toothless Wolves sink further into trouble and he was soon following McClaren out of the door.
Magath, who won the Bundesliga title with Wolfsburg in 2009 before leaving for Schalke, has put a temporary halt to their losing streak but he will need more than the consecutive 1-1 draws he's presided over to keep Wolfsburg from slipping into out of the league. Wolfsburg currently sit in the relegation play-off place of 16th, with only goal difference separating them from St. Pauli in 17th.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann