Anything less than a win would have seen Darmstadt down, but they got off to the ideal start when Mario Vrancic gave them an early lead.
Coke equalised for Schalke after Guido Burgstaller had a penalty saved by the excellent Michael Esser. Thilo Kehrer was then sent off for Schalke, and Gondorf scrambled in the stoppage time winner.
Darmstadt on the brink
Saturday’s matches couldn’t have gone any worse for Darmstadt. They knew if VfL Wolfsburg, 1. FSV Mainz 05 and FC Augsburg all won they would be in danger of having their relegation confirmed this weekend, and that’s exactly what happened.
Torsten Frings made three changes for this potentially fateful afternoon from the side that lost to FC Ingolstadt 04 last Sunday. Patrick Banggard, Gondorf and Marcel Heller came in for Markus Steinhöfer, Immanuel Höhn and the suspended Antonio Colak.
Donis Avdijaj was given a first start in the Bundesliga as Markus Weinzierl rested several key players ahead of the second leg of their UEFA Europa League tie with Ajax. Coke, Holger Badstuber and Johannes Geis also started, with Benedikt Höwedes, Matija Nastasic, Nabil Bentaleb and Alessandro Schöpf dropping out.
Esser keeps Schalke at bay after Vrancic scores
Their relegation might be inevitable, but Darmstadt clearly hadn’t read the script. Ten minutes in, a good move started from Michael Esser’s goal kick saw Gondorf find Heller on the right, and his cross took the ball past Ralf Fährmann found Vrancic in the box, leaving him with an easy tap-in and a third goal in two games.
Schalke responded by launching a siege on Esser’s goal. Coke started it with an excellent cross, which found Thilo Kehrer whose header was taken by Esser, who then had to save another header from Badstuber from the resulting Geis corner.
Geis set pieces kept on coming for Schalke. After his free-kick was put out for a corner by Sandro Sirigu, Guido Burgstaller headed that wide. Daniel Caligiuri set up one more chance in an intense four minutes of football, with Avdijaj’s shot saved, again, by Esser.
More chances came, with Esser saving from Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer, with Burgstaller then heading another Geis free-kick wide. Darmstadt’s only real chance late on in the half came through a shot wide from Heller, but they were able to make it in at the break still in front.
Burgstaller wastes chance to level the game
Schalke continued their search for an equaliser early in the second half. Coke set up Burgstaller with an excellent ball, but his attempt was blocked by Banggaard, who also denied Coke on the rebound. Kehrer then headed wide from Geis’s umpteenth free-kick.
Schalke were then awarded a very soft penalty when referee Patrick Ittrich felt Aytac Sulu had fouled Caligiuri, despite there not being much contact. Darmstadt were incensed, having already been on the wrong end of some dubious decisions from the man in charge. Eventually Burgstaller took the penalty, he went down the middle and Esser kept it out with an outstretched leg.
There was a half chance for Darmstadt just after the hour mark when Schalke youngster Felix Platte, on loan with Darmstadt, couldn’t do anything with Heller’s cross at the near post. There was then chaos in the Darmstadt box, with Caligiuri playing it in for Franco Di Santo, who couldn’t get a decisive touch. Esser, eventually, grabbed hold of the ball.
Gondorf delays the inevitable in dramatic finale
Darmstadt hearts would eventually be broken by Coke. Dennis Aogo and Meyer combined on the left, with Aogo’s cross finding an unmarked Coke, whose commanding header gave him his first Schalke goal and looked to have ended Darmstadt’s stay in the Bundesliga.
There were further twists to come though. Soon after Goretzka headed wide an Aogo corner, substitute Sven Schipplock looked to break clear but was hauled back by Kehrer. He had already been booked ten minutes earlier, however Ittrich showed him a straight red card instead. Darmstadt had ten minutes again ten men to try to save themselves.
The chance they needed didn’t seem to be coming, until the final moments of stoppage time. With a free kick from the right, Vrancic opted to play it low to Heller. He crossed to Sulu who had his header blocked. The rebound fell to Gondorf, who put it in to cue delirious scenes at the Jonathan-Heimes-Stadion am Böllenfalltor.
The end will no doubt come soon, possibly next week away at Hamburger SV, but it was fitting that there was another display of the remarkable spirit they have shown in the top flight. Schalke will be kicking themselves though at letting another game slip by.