Schalke and Hannover 96 opened up week 15 of the Bundesliga with a fascinating clash at the Veltins-Arena that saw two wildly inconsistent teams face off in the hopes of finding some kind of rhythm as the Hinrunde starts to wind down before the Winterpause, with the Köningsblauen in particular looking to improve on their worst start to a season since 2010-11.
In the end, it was the expected result of a 3-1 home win which fans were treated to, with Johannes Geis, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Franco Di Santo scoring for Schalke, as substitute Allan Saint-Maximin denied them a clean sheet.
Looking at the history between these two sides, it was no surprise that Schalke were seen as the clear favourites, having won 34 of the 65 prior meetings between these two sides, while Hannover only managed a meagre 17 triumphs in comparison. However, both sides carried contrasting results into the game – The home side only managing an incredibly unfortunate late draw with Bayer Leverkusen after a fluke of a Sascha Riether own-goal last Sunday, while the 96ers showed attacking prowess few could have predicted in thrashing Bundesliga new-boys FC Ingolstadt 4-0 at home.
The Schalke players were treated to the sight of a magnificent choreography by the fans documenting the history and traditions of the club to add an even higher plane of anticipation than usual in the moments before kick-off.
Köningsblauen manager Andre Breitenreiter started his career with Hannover, representing the 96ers between 1986 and 1994, but there was to be no early charity from the 96ers due to past allegiances as the game started in typical back-and-forth fashion, with the visitors putting a nervous-looking Schalke defence under some early pressure, forcing Riether into a foul deemed worthy of a yellow card after only nine minutes.
The resulting free-kick was cleared, though, and subsequently saw the prodigiously talented Leroy Sane going on a mazing run past three men, but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was unable to turn in the low cross.
As was the case against Leverkusen, the Köningsblauen looked conservative going forward initially and aimed to attack mostly on the counter. After a quarter of an hour had been played, there was confusion in the Hannover box as the defence failed to clear a loose ball, nearly allowing Benedikt Höwedes a shot on goal.
With 17 minutes gone, Artur Sobiech picked up an injury which saw him unable to continue, forcing Michael Frontzeck into an early change as Charlison Benschop took to the pitch. Up to this stage, the game had seen a number of blocked chances and half-chances, but the first real opportunity only came in the 23rd minute with Sane failing to properly connect with a free header from Riether’s cross for the home side.
Soon afterwards, Sane was back in the thick of things as he combined with Max Meyer, the latter poking wide as Schalke started to take control of the game.
Hannover defender Marcelo nearly handed Schalke an opener on a silver platter after 28 minutes with a horribly botched clearance, but Huntelaar was unable to capitalize and send the Nordkurve into raptures. Sane, Meyer and Leon Goretzka continually caused problems for the 96ers’ defence near the box with some neat interplay, but the final ball continued to be lacking as attacks merely fizzled out.
With 38 minutes on the clock, Huntelaar had a fantastic opportunity once more, but saw his touch from a long ball over the top let him down, before firing over on the turn two minutes later. Just before half-time Sane, who had been a constant thorn in the side of the visiting defence, forced Ron-Robert Zieler into a sharp save from an angle to keep the two sides deadlocked at the break in a slightly ponderous encounter.
The young trio of Sane, Meyer and Goretzka had been at the heart of everything good coming from the home side, but lacked the final product to trouble the assured Zieler in the Hannover goal unduly. Were Schalke going to fall into the now-familiar trap of creating a number of chances but failing to capitalize once more in the second half?
Second half brings some excitement
The next 45 minutes of action started very much how the first half had ended, with Schalke seizing the initiative and immediately putting the 96ers under pressure. It was duly rewarded as Huntelaar won a penalty in the 51st minute thanks to a foul by Marcelo, who had been looking a likely candidate to make a mistake all game.
To make matters worse, the centre-back was shown a yellow card as Johannes Geis marked his return to action after a five-game suspension by calmly dispatching his spot-kick to give the Köningsblauen a deserved lead. With Hannover trailing, manager Frontzeck made the bold move of sending on striker Allan Saint-Maximin for midfielder Manuel Schmiedebach after 62 minutes in order to try and spark a comeback, or at least just some attacking intent.
Unfortunately, the task at hand was made even tougher by the fact that the Veltins-Arena pitch was beginning to break up, making it much more difficult to play fast and attacking football which ideally suited Schalke’s goal of protecting their lead. With 18 minutes left, though, Joel Matip had an opportunity to double the lead but found himself unable to beat Zieler with his header from a corner.
But the fans would soon have something to cheer, as Huntelaar pounced on some lax defending to score that all-important second goal to all-but seal the game in the 73rd minute after some excellent work by Meyer forced the error from the struggling Marcelo. Frontzeck made his final change of the evening as Edgar Prib came on for the last 13 minutes, replacing Leon Andreasen, while Breitenreiter brought on Franco Di Santo for Huntelaar and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg for the outstanding Meyer.
Hannover still had some fight left in them, though, as Kenan Karaman struck the post with 10 minutes remaining before Allan Saint-Maximin fired in a superb shot from the edge of the area to give the visitors a glimmer of hope. However, these feelings were quickly quashed as Di Santo headed in his first Bundesliga goal for Schalke to take the score to 3-1 in the 82nd minute.
With mere minutes to play, goalscorer Geis was substituted for Sead Kolasinac to sure up the defence, signalling the end of the game as a contest. Schalke picked up a deserved three points in a game which they clearly dominated, while Hannover continue their rollercoaster form with nobody ever really sure of what to expect from them.
After this win the Köningsblauen can look forward to a trip to FC Augsburg in Week 16 after a tough run of recent fixtures, with Breitenreiter’s stated goal of having 30 points before Christmas firmly in their sights. Hannover can look to recover from this loss with a trip to struggling 1899 Hoffenheim, which already promises to be a fascinating clash.