Hannover 96 (4-4-2): Zieler; Schulz, Pogatetz, Haggui, Chahed; Pander, Pinto, Stindl, Ya Konan; Schlaudraff, Abdellaoue
Schalke 04 (4-2-3-1): Unnerstall; Fuchs, Matip, Papadopoulos, Höwedes; Holtby, Jones; Draxler, Raúl, Farfán; Pukki
Hannover 96 coach Mirko Slomka welcomed Schalke 04, the team he so nearly turned into Bundesliga champions in 2007, to the AWD Arena for this battle of Germany’s Europa League representatives. With both sides having played in that competition on Thursday, a certain amount of squad rotation was to be expected – in that respect Schalke boss Huub Stevens had more room for manoeuvre than his counterpart in the dugout.
The lack of financial resources available to Slomka has made his success at the Niedersachsen club all the more impressive: a club-record fourth-placed finish in the Bundesliga last year made Hannover the surprise of the season. Many teams then experience a collapse when faced with juggling European competition and the domestic league, but Slomka and 96 have shown no such weakness – Hannover came into the game eighth in the Bundesliga (three points behind Schalke) and off the back of a hard-fought Europa League win in Copenhagen that put them joint top of Group B.
The Schalke 04 squad looks considerably stronger on paper, but it has taken the arrival of the disciplined Dutchman Stevens for them to show their potential in the Bundesliga. A win here would have put them second in the table, and although they failed to impress against Larnaka in midweek, they also sit top of their Europa League group.
From a tactical point of view, the match promised an interesting spectacle. In a league (like many in Europe) increasingly dominated by variations on the 4-5-1, Mirko Slomka and Hannover 96 often, as they did here, set up in a fairly traditional 4-4-2. Stindl moved into the centre of midfield to replace Schmiedebach, with Didier Ya Konan playing on the right wing, rather than in his conventional position up front.
Schalke on the other hand, as already mentioned, had more freedom to rotate. Höwedes, Holtby, Raúl and Farfán all returned in Huub Stevens’ preferred 4-2-3-1 set-up, but top scorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar missed out after taking a knock in Europe. The major surprise was that Teemu Pukki was chosen to replace him for his first Bundesliga start, rather than Ciprian Marica. Perhaps Huub Stevens’ felt the Finnish striker’s pace was more likely to test the Hannover centre backs, Pogatetz and Haggui, neither of whom is known for their mobility.
Aside from a great chance for Schalke after just 90 seconds, skied over by an unmarked Benedikt Höwedes, the game took some time to get going. The two teams’ European endeavours could be seen in the slow tempo in the opening 20 minutes, with little pressing from either side. Despite that, neither team could find their passing rhythm, though the ex-Schalke man Christian Pander occasionally managed to link up with Schlaudraff down the Hannover left.
For their part, Schalke were failing to get a grip of the game, with dangermen Draxler and Farfán spending more time tracking Hannover’s wingers than causing an attacking threat. That changed after 26 minutes, however, when Pukki, who had been interchanging positions with Raúl to try and open up the home defence, put Schalke ahead.
Ya Konan had been following his natural tendency to drift into central positions, and that may have been a factor in Schalke left back Fuchs having the time to play a perfectly weighted through ball for Pukki to outpace Haggui and round the onrushing keeper to score his first Bundesliga goal.
The lead lasted just three minutes, however. Pander knocked a free kick into the danger area, and Papadopoulos headed into his own net under minimal pressure. Huub Stevens, famed for his motto “The zero must stay”, which calls for a strong defence as the basis for success, will have been furious to see the lead thrown away so cheaply.
Hannover 96 dominated the rest of the half without creating any clear-cut chances, although Jermaine Jones was somewhat lucky to escape with a yellow after pulling down Mohammed Abdellaoue when he was through on goal, and the 96 forward also had a good penalty claim turned down shortly before half time.
With no changes in personnel, the second half started as the first had ended, with Hannover in control, though they came out of the blocks with a higher tempo than before the break. Didier Ya Konan, who had again moved in from the right, shot just wide after 46 minutes, and Stindl burst forward into the box five minutes later, but couldn’t keep his header down.
The home side turned their pressure into a lead just before the hour mark, Abdellaoue starting and finishing a lovely move. Schlaudraff and Ya Konan had switched positions once more, and the latter spread the ball wide right to the former, whose perfect cross with the outside of the boot was nodded home by the Norwegian striker, who had continued his run after initially feeding the ball to Ya Konan.
At this point 96 were winning the midfield battle, despite having a man fewer in the centre. To change the balance of play, Stevens allowed Lewis Holtby more freedom to go forward, and Schalke succeeded in turning the game.
Farfán got his first real chance to run at the tiring Hannover defence after 72 minutes, and when they failed to challenge him the tricky Peruvian fed Pukki for his second of the afternoon. The angle was tight and Ron-Robert Zieler in the Hannover goal should have done better, but Schalke were level.
Zieler, called up to the German international squad for the first time last week, made up for his earlier error with two excellent saves within a minute from Holtby and then Pukki as the away side kept the pressure up. The Finn came off to a well-deserved ovation from the travelling fans shortly before Wolfgang Stark blew the full-time whistle on an entertaining 2-2 draw.
Hannover, who remain unbeaten at home in the league, were the better team for much of the game, and it looked as if the fluidity Slomka’s team showed going forward would be enough to win the game. However, Stevens’ faith in Pukki’s ability to cause the home defence problems was rewarded, and once the effects of Hannover’s Europa League exploits started to show, his Schalke side could even have taken all three points.