Schalke square off against Mainz in the last 16 of the German Cup on Tuesday. Thomas Tuchel travels to Gelsenkirchen amid rumors - ones he's keen to dispel - that the city might soon become his base of operations.
Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel must be sick of saying words to the effect of "I'm not going to Schalke."
This mantra, amid ceaseless chatter putting him in the quasi-vacant coaching post in Gelsenkirchen sooner or later, is also demonstrably false.
Tuchel is on his way to the Ruhr valley mining town on Tuesday, albeit to sit in the opposing dugout, where he will seek to pour salt into Schalke's Bundesliga hemorrhage by booting them out of the German Cup before the winter break.
"We can put an exclamation mark on top of what was already a very good first half of the season," Tuchel said ahead of Tuesday's game.
If the season ended at Christmas, Tuchel would have again led little Mainz into European competition
Mainz have ridden a streaky patch of form all the way into European qualification spots in time for the winter break. The team has won five and lost five of its last 10 in the league - a mixed record that's still enough for an upper-mid-table berth in Germany's competitive top flight. Buoyed by a sturdy six wins out of eight at home so far, even the side's shoddy away form - with only two road wins in nine - hasn't slowed them too drastically.
Christmas can't come soon enough for the Schalke, on the other hand. The Royal Blues are winless in six in the Bundesliga, they've slid to seventh place in the table - one spot below Tuchel's Mainz - and midfield general Jermaine Jones, Schalke's man for the messier moments, is out with a lengthy suspension.
Since the weekend dismissal of Huub Stevens, under-17 coach Jens Keller is charged with righting the senior ship - at least for the rest of the season. But where, if anywhere, does Tuchel come in?
The pledge of allegiance
"I have not, even up to today, spoken with any representatives of Schalke 04," Tuchel told reporters in a press conference on Monday. "And indeed, neither in connection with youth or professional coaching spots."
Tuchel also said that because he does not employ an agent to conduct such talks, this statement meant nobody close to him had spoken to Schalke. Consistently linked to a string of wealthier clubs like Werder Bremen, Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg, a touchy Tuchel - who has a contract through 2015 - said: "I can't reaffirm my loyalty every week!"
The little team is used to punching above its weight; Tuchel led them to fifth in the Bundesliga two campaigns ago - spearheaded by German starlets like Andre Schürrle and Lewis Holtby, a youngster on loan from Schalke.
Tuchel has been at the helm ever since Mainz retuned to the Bundesliga, leading them to ninth in their debut top-flight season, then to fifth, and to a more sober 13th last season as the side recovered from the loss of Schürrle and Holtby. The 39-year-old has quietly garnered a reputation as a member of Germany's new coaching elite, somebody bound to take the next step to a bigger club before long.
Mainz's manager Christian Heidel has said that the possible Schalke vacancy in the summer should not be linked to Tuchel, though, because he would not let his star coach go - to any club - without a fight.
"In such a case, I'm not open to discussion," Heidel said on Monday. "That contract will not be absolved, in the winter or the summer. Not even if somebody offered 30, or 60 or 70 million euros."
These impassioned Monday rejections of the rumors smelled suspiciously like damage limitation after Tuchel's weekend comments on German public television.
"Of course I want to fight for titles, to compete in the Champions League," Tuchel swooned on Saturday, speaking of targets that seem more in keeping with a club like Schalke than with Mainz.
Change in time for the cup
One way or the other, Tuchel and Mainz are in Schalke's immediate crosshairs. Schalke manager Horst Heldt may not be interested in hiring the Mainz man, but he did make it very clear at the weekend that he was dismissing Huub Stevens in time for Schalke's cup tie against Tuchel's team.
"We no longer believed that we could address this important match with the current constellation. We had to make a change right now, today," Heldt said.
With the Bundesliga dream - which always bordered on fantasy for Schalke anyway - now dead before Christmas, Schalke's under-fire manager appears keen to launch a cup run. The relatively swift decision to dismiss a man named Schalke's "coach of the century" could be one Heldt comes to rue himself if the season continues poorly under youth coach Keller.
The Royal Blues have also reached the last 16 of the Champions League, but are among the least-fancied teams left in that prestigious pot.
Back-room uncertainty is particularly unwelcome at Schalke as the club seeks negotiations with star players Lewis Holtby and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, whose contracts expire in the summer.
Freiburg visit third-division Karslruhe, Kickers Offenbach host Fortuna Düsseldorf and bottom-of-the-Bundesliga Augsburg entertain mighty Bayern Munich in Tuesday's other German Cup matches.