Mainz eye Champions League place after outlasting Schalke

The Bundesliga’s race for the UEFA Champions League positions appears to be a relentless curve of twists-and-turns until the end of the season. Mainz’s 2-1 win over Schalke to kickoff Matchday 21 sees the Carnival Club go level on points with the Royal Blues in fourth — only goal difference keeps them in fifth ahead of Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach.

The fact that Mainz is even in contention for a Champions League position is perhaps more of an indictment on the inconsistency of its competitors. But with its third win on the spin, Mainz has stepped out of mid-table mediocrity and posed a genuine threat in recent months under the guidance of Martin Schmidt.

Triumphing with goals from Gaetan Bussmann and a late winner from Julian Baumgartlinger, Mainz shrugged off prematch concerns over the injury to central striker Yoshinori Muto. The Japanese hitman, with seven goals to his name, could miss several weeks of action — and undoubtedly at the worst time for Mainz who take on Leverkusen and Bayern Munich in the coming weeks.

The Friday night encounter started at a rip-roaring speed with both sides evidently keen to state a point. Jairo Samperio dispossessed Roman Neustadter in the first minute, but couldn’t take advantage. Two minutes later, Max Meyer jinked inside on to his left-foot and snagged a shot wide of the target. Had Klaas-Jan Huntelaar not lost the spring in his step, the Dutchman would have surely fancied himself to connect with Junior Caicara’s tantalizing cross on nine minutes.

But this was textbook Schalke; a fast, intense start, full of purpose and vigor, yet there is a prevailing sense that something could go horribly wrong in defense. This was becoming slowly apparent when the Royal Blues dropped the pace after the first 20 minutes, leaving themselves flat-footed at dealing with rapid, and effective, transitions into attack from the home side.

Schmidt, a trained automobile mechanic with a regular spot in his local choir, has won 15 of 35 matches as head coach after succeeding Danish boss Kasper Hjulmand. Although Hjulmand’s stint was short-lived, he did bring a change in philosophy with a move to a possession-based game. Schmidt has honed that, while recovering the excellent defensive structure and quicker bursts of action in attack that were so prominent under another former Mainz coach, Thomas Tuchel.

January could have marked a tail-spin in Mainz’s season, had Yunus Malli completed a move to Borussia Dortmund. A valuation had been agreed between the two clubs, but the attacking-midfielder was simply irreplaceable. For Mainz, and sporting director Christian Heidel, who is expected to join Schalke this summer, selling the asset will be no problem; finding a suitable replacement who can contribute similarly will be nearly impossible.

Malli’s inward runs from the flanks are complicated to track. Jairo on the wing offers speed and smart crossing ability. Christian Clemens, on the other side, gives defensive discipline, while generally interchanging with the absent Muto. But despite this cohesive attacking setup, Mainz’s opener on 33 minutes emanated from a set-piece. Danny Latza’s corner kick was headed out — only as far as Bussmann who fired home emphatically.

To their credit, Schalke bounced back after halftime with an impromptu leveller. In the first minute, Leroy Sane’s angled run beat the offside trap, but despite overhitting the cross, the ball was squared back to Belhanda and he thumped past Loris Karius, the Mainz goalkeeper. Belhanda, on loan from Dynamo Kyiv until the end of the season,

Schalke coach Andre Breitenreiter and sporting director Horst Heldt have seen a collective response from the team following the 3-1 defeat to Werder Bremen on Matchday 18. Schalke’s home loss sparked surprisingly vociferous media speculation on whether Breitenreiter was the right man for the job. One Schalke player, interviewed on the club’s website, said some players "didn’t know whether to laugh or cry." Since then, Schalke has won back-to-back league games.

This game, though, wasn’t quite in their grasp with Mainz remaining a threat, if they could feed the ball to Malli in the right positions. The Turkish international delicately carved out a great chance, flicking the ball nonchalantly into the box for Clemens, but the former Cologne man headed straight into Ralf Fährmann’s arms. Belhanda wasn’t far off a second for Schalke in 61 minutes – his shot blocked by last-gasp Mainz defending.

In the end, Schalke, with all its resources and ambitions, will be left soul-searching after Baumgartlinger scored his first Bundesliga goal on 75 minutes to grab the winner. Malli was inspirational on the wing, crossing for the Austrian midfielder who never looked under-pressure as headed past Fährmann from close range.

With third to seventh separated by just three points, the pendulum is almost certainly guaranteed to swing back-and-forth with 13 games left in the season. But Mainz, of all the contenders, have issued another statement to suggest they will be around to make things difficult.