It took 75 minutes for them to find a goal, but Schalke 04 won their opening UEFA Europa League Group I match in France against OGC Nice.
After an unentertaining first half, it got livelier in the second, and Baba Rahman got the only goal with fifteen minutes remaining, in a game which Schalke had dominated throughout.
After a good start to their domestic season, Nice disappointed for much of the match, although Mario Balotelli showed a few glimpses of what he is capable of, especially as they chased the game in the closing stages.
Contrasting histories and fortunes
This was Nice’s first ever group stage game in a UEFA competition, with their only recent appearance in Europe at all being in the play-off round of the competition three seasons ago. They finished fourth in Ligue 1 last season.
For Schalke this is a second consecutive season they have had to be content with the Europa League, after finishing fifth in the Bundesliga last season.
Schalke made just the two changes from the team that lost to Bayern Munich six days earlier. Alessandro Schöpf came in for Yevhen Konoplyanka, but the big news was a first start for 19-year-old striker Breel Embolo following his arrival in the summer from FC Basel.
After a 3-2 win against Marseille at the weekend, former Borussia Mönchengladbach coach Lucien Favre named an unchanged team. That meant another start for Balotelli, who scored two goals in that game as they continued their unbeaten start. Former Bundesliga defender Dante also started.
A quiet first 45 minutes
Schalke dominated possession in the opening stages, but Nice defended well enough to keep their glimpses of goal at a bare minimum. The sides were limited to long-range efforts, with Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting firing over for Schalke and Wylan Cyprien doing likewise at the other end.
There was almost a moment of calamity for Nice, when Paul Baysse directed a pass to the wrong side of the goal from keeper Yoan Cardinale, but he managed to get across to clear before Embolo made them pay.
Leon Goretzka had the best chance to capitalise when they did breakthrough though. The midfielder had two shots from the edge of the box excellently saved by Yoan Cardinale, with a third effort on the rebound from Embolo blocked by Baysse.
It didn’t get any better for either side after that, with Schöpf having the only other chance of note, going over. He might have also had a penalty just before the break, when he was brought down by Dante, but the referee showed no interest, although other officials might have seen it differently.
Meyer and Baba combine for deserved goal
The second half started slowly, but both sides eventually had chances to open the scoring at last. Firstly for Schalke, Naldo directed a precise head at Cardinale from corner taken by Konoplyanka, who had been introduced off the bench.
Cardinale was the hero again for Nice soon after, with Goretzka shooting through a crowd of bodies in the box, with the keeper needing to stretch in order to keep it out.
Nice were making more of an impact going forward now though after a disappointing first half, with a good cross from Balotelli taken by Ralf Fährmann before it reached Alassane Pléa, before the Italian received a great long ball, he then spun around with the ball but the best he could get was a corner.
The introduction of Max Meyer for Benjamin Stambouli with thirty minutes to go proved to be a decisive move. He had a chance to put Schalke in the lead with a shot from the edge of the box, but again Cardinale was in the way, parrying it away.
And Meyer was involved when the Nice keeper was finally beaten. He exchanged balls with Baba, with the Ghanaian firing into the back of the net to break the deadlock.
Schalke see the game out
Their tails were up and they could have got a second. Meyer unleashed another shot on goal, only able to find the side netting, with Konoplyanka also going wide soon after.
The goal had a positive effect on Nice as well though, and Balotelli had his best chance with six minutes to go. After a good first touch, he shot with his second, but Naldo did well to get a touch on it, leaving Ralf Fährmann to do the rest.
There was two back-to-back chances for Schalke to get a second in stoppage time. An excellent shot from Meyer was saved by Cardinale, with Choupo-Moting smashing the near post on the rebound.
Schalke had to do plenty of defending to do in the closing stages as well, but they saw out a result that overall was no doubt a deserved one. A first win of the season will be very much welcomed, ahead of Hertha BSC in the Bundesliga at the weekend.