Schalke’s famous slips will have Dortmund ready to pounce

Bombs. They’re the sort of thing you usually hear about on CNN, not in the lead up to a major derby. Perhaps you wouldn’t be that surprised to learn about, say, an Olympiakos-Panathinaikos game being delayed while sniffer dogs search for explosives, but it came as quite a shock to learn that Dortmund’s Thursday press conference had to be moved out of the Westfalenstadion due to the discovery of a bomb.

Sure, the Revierderby is a big match, but it’s rarely included in lists of top 10, or even top 20, soccer derbies you absolutely must experience before you pass from this earth. In other words, supporters in North Rhine-Westphalia rarely set fire to seats before hurling them through the air. However, Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund fans aren’t adverse to setting off a multitude of smoke bombs, and they’ve recently taken to sending flares down to the pitch.

The bomb thing is still pretty weird, though.

General view of the Arena AufSchalke

Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images.

Passion, however, does flare and flame frequently. The Ruhr derby never lacks for intensity, and it can be as much about the fans as the clubs. While many teams in Germany might be labeled plastic (Bayer Leverkusen is one of the prime examples) and a certain club (Bayern) can put butts in the seats simply through total domination, Schalke and Dortmund boast two of the largest and most vociferous fanbases in Germany. And right now, they’re two sets of fans that are biting their nails about the Champions League and their club’s future in the competition. Throw in a history between he teams that stretches back to the early 1900s and you have all the ingredients for a thunderous atmosphere.

But back to the bomb. Turns out it was a relic from World War II rather than a warning left by a demented Schalke fan. Much safer, but not quite as twistingly intriguing. You can almost imagine the Royal Blues, with only one win in their last five games, plotting some sort of intervention, some way of delaying the game until they’ve managed to regain some semblance of stability.

Except … that’s sort of who Schalke is, isn’t it? Famed for fumbling. First it was the end of the 2001 campaign when, as the whistle blew in Gelsenkirchen on a 5-3 victory, Schalke fans invaded the pitch, celebrating wildly. But their side had already screwed up, allowing Bayern Munich to go three points clear after an inexplicable loss the previous week at Stuttgart. And so when the Bavarians leveled the score with a direct free kick in their last shot at Hamburg, it was they who took the title. The pain of their four ecstatic, misguided minutes still haunts Schalke fans.

Then came 2007. Going into the final round, Schalke trailed Stuttgart by a mere two points, having lost 2-0 to Dortmund the week before. Again things looked positive for the Royal Blues, who took an early lead, while Stuttgart went behind. But Schalke’s ultimate victory turned out to be meaningless, with a young Sami Khedira scoring the winner that gave Stuttgart the title.

Chelsea FC v FC Schalke 04 - UEFA Champions League

Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images.

And now this season. No, Schalke was never in danger of challenging for Bayern Munich’s title. Instead, it’s all about the Champions League places. And while Schalke has managed to haul itself into fourth, Augsburg is right there as well, and no one’s going to discount Bayer Leverkusen after its impressive display this week against Atlético Madrid. Now, for all the noise about Dortmund fighting relegation, it’s actually Schalke that seems more precarious.

Roberto Di Matteo was meant to halt Schalke’s consistent inconsistency. When he took over, the team was 11th, with just two wins. Yet one of those was in the first edition of the Revierderby, two weeks before. It takes a special kind of club to fire a manager (in this case, Jens Keller) shortly after he beats a club’s studied rivals – and holds Chelsea to a draw in the Champions League. Schalke is that club, and Schalke was damn tired of leaking goals.

So in came an Italian (they’re famed for their defense, after all) and sure enough, Schalke’s now down to .8 goals conceded per game. That, of course, leaves out the club’s dreadful 5-0 loss when Chelsea came to town. But on the whole, Di Matteo’s instilled a much more sensible philosophy. His players tend to sit deep, hitting their opponents on the counter. It’s pragmatic — some would say boring — but it works, allowing Schalke to frequently nudge one-goal victories.

But this predictable Schalke side may become too easy for opponents to figure out, particularly in a league as devoted to attack as the Bundesliga. When not allowed to play in the style players have become accustomed to, such as last week against Werder Bremen, a lead might suddenly become a mere point. Or a point may disappear, like it did two weeks ago, when Eintracht managed to beat Schalke at its own 1-0 game.

So suddenly the Royal Blues, back to being predictably unpredictable, are also dreadfully dull. With Bayern a full 20 points ahead, a late-challenge-cum-painful-slip is out of the question. The side hasn’t even saved its typical late-season Champions League push for late in the season. Instead, it now feels more likely that Schalke will simply slide on into oblivion, joining the hordes of teams entering the early stages of the Europa League.

After the first half of the Bundesliga season, it seems weird to head into this edition of the Revierderby believing Dortmund will emerge triumphant. Yet with just one loss since returning from the winter break and three straight wins in the league, Dortmund is finally looking dangerous. Considering Schalke has been caught out not once but twice in the past two weeks by far less threatening sides, the visitors likely won’t have as easy a time as was had back in September.