Copy-paste-save: Schalke seek to emulate spreadsheet success

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Visitors to Gelsenkirchen could be forgiven for thinking Schalke’s museum is another ubiquitous branch of PC World in the Ruhr.

Space is afforded to medals, shirts and programmes, as one would expect - nothing out of the ordinary perhaps. Except pride of place is reserved for another rather dated and chunky-looking object - a Compaq Contura laptop, its weight 6.25 pounds, its black shell polished up like a trophy in its own right.

Filed away somewhere on its tiny 350MB hard drive is a database, one six years in the making. Its architect, the Dutch coach, Huub Stevens, had meticulously listed and described penalties and their takers, so when the second leg of the 1997 UEFA Cup final at San Siro went to extra time and then spot-kicks, Schalke were prepared in a way that their opponents Inter could scarcely have imagined.

“Stevens had all the Inter players and their preferred corners stored in the computer,” revealed Olaf Thon, the Schalke captain. The chief benefactor of that intelligence was Jens Lehmann. “I’d checked with the laptop and knew that whenever Ivan Zamorano took a long run-up he always put the ball to the goalkeeper’s left and that’s exactly what he did.”

It put Inter on the back foot immediately, and when Aron Winter missed their third, Stevens could afford to look up from his laptop and smile. Schalke converted all four of their penalties and quite unexpectedly tasted glory.

That team, with its industry and mental toughness became known as the Eurofighters and offered a fitting reflection of Gelsenkirchen itself. Johan De Kock, the Schalke defender, even studied engineering in his spare time and was later asked to consult on the club’s new stadium, while Marc Wilmots - the hero of the first leg with a rasping 25-yard shot that escaped Gianluca Pagliuca, also hung up his boots to enter public service. He became a member of the Belgian senate.

As for Inter, it was a humiliating home defeat in front of 81,000 of their own fans. Their manager Roy Hodgson cut a forlorn figure on the sidelines. His handling of the situation had been lamentable. With a shoot-out looming, Hodgson decided to replace a young Javier Zanetti with the more experienced Nicola Berti. It was a vote of no confidence - the only time an otherwise model professional threw an angry tantrum.

What followed greatly unsettled Inter at a crucial moment. “The change didn’t go down well with Javier who gave the manager a piece of his mind,” recalls Beppe Bergomi. “Mister Roy didn’t reply in a striking fashion, but then once extra-time was over, he exploded and went to give Zanetti a piece of his mind too… You could cut the tension with a knife. I think that it’s the only time Zanetti has been involved in such an agitation in his fantastic career with Inter. There was an irony of sorts in that Berti didn’t even get to take his penalty kick.”

Hodgson resigned the following day. “No one is more bitter than me,” he refrained, and although Inter got their revenge a year later by knocking Schalke out at the quarter-final stage of the same competition, they needed extra-time once again and the divine intervention of Taribo West.

Despite that result, the ghosts of `97 still linger. Schalke’s current goalkeeper Manuel Neuer watched the final as an 11-year-old and hasn’t forgotten the history lesson.  “I saw the first leg of that game at the stadium and the return leg on a giant screen,” he said. “I remember the match very well. We hope to write a similar story.”

Of course, Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick also adds to the intrigue of this quarter-final tie. Nicknamed The Professor, Inter should expect the same detailed preparation from Schalke as they encountered with Stevens’ side all those years ago.

A tactical guru in his own right, Rangnick drew inspiration in his early days from Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan. “I recorded all of Milan’s games, dissected every move and learned,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “I believe that every player who was under Sacchi’s guidance was more tactically instructed than any teacher at a coaching course.”

So tonight’s game has a derby-like feel too. It’s also Rangnick’s first in the Champions League since December 2005. As fate would have it, the setting that evening was San Siro and Schalke suffered a 3-2 defeat to Milan, one that brought elimination and soon afterwards the end of Rangnick’s first stint at the club.

The odds are against him again this evening. Injuries to Mario Gavranovic, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Peer Kluge leave Rangnick short of options. “We must turn the impossible into the possible,” he said. And how better to do that than by invoking the spirit of `97.