Schalke seeks to conclude a turbulent, topsy-turvy season by winning its fifth German Cup title in the final on Saturday against second-division club Duisburg.
Article continues below ...
Schalke is the overwhelming favorite against a side that finished eighth in the second division and which will be missing several injured regulars at the Olympic stadium in Berlin. Duisburg is the first second-division team to make the final in seven years.
But Schalke is coming off six straight losses in the Bundesliga and Europe, finishing 14th in the domestic title race only a year after coming second and being comfortably beaten in the Champions League semifinals by Manchester United.
The match is a chance for Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to lift a trophy before he leaves the club. Neuer is widely believed to be heading to Bayern Munich, although a deal has not been officially confirmed.
After finishing runner-up in the Bundesliga in Felix Magath’s first season as coach, Schalke was hoping to finally end five decades of futility by winning the championship.
But after a disastrous start, Schalke became stuck in the bottom half of the standings and never recovered. Magath was fired and replaced by Ralf Rangnick.
It was under Magath that Schalke secured a spot in the German Cup final by beating titleholder Bayern. The team also reached the Champions League quarterfinals before the coaching switch, knocking out defending champion Inter Milan under Rangnick before being badly outplayed in the next round.
Rangnick’s promising start included a 5-2 win in Milan, only for the team to slump badly at the end of the Bundesliga season. But Schalke had nothing to play for in the league and may have been saving itself for the cup final.
"I am absolutely sure that we’ll win, simply because we have more quality in our ranks," said Rangnick, who could win his first title. "You have to win against a second-division team."
Schalke, entering its 12th cup final, last won in 2002. Duisburg is in its fourth final and has never lifted the title.
In his first stint as Schalke coach, Rangnick finished as runner-up in the Bundesliga and lost the German Cup final in 2005.
"Even if Schalke had lost all 34 games (in the Bundesliga) and we’d won all of them, they would still be the clear favorite," Duisburg midfielder Goran Sukalo said.
Duisburg had a promising start in the second tier, looking like heading for promotion halfway through the season before slumping.
The team will be without captain Srdjan Baljak and Julian Koch, one of its top players. Both are out with knee injuries. Schalke is without major injury worries.
Duisburg is coached by Milan Sasic, whose prior jobs included a stint as a construction worker after he left Croatia 20 years ago.