Schalke keep their stars and aim for the skies above Dortmund
Ã¢ÂÂChangeÃ¢ÂÂ certainly seems to be the word on everyoneÃ¢ÂÂs mouth these days. Whether itÃ¢ÂÂs the new manager at Old Trafford, the new head jester at Real Madrid or the whereabouts of footballÃ¢ÂÂs next top youngster, every topic seems steeped in metamorphosis and transformation.
In Germany it goes a little deeper than just the dynamic Euro-conquering duo of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, and the impending alterations to their playing and management staff. As another Bundesliga season concludes, few teams embody change as much as the forward-looking Schalke.
Nothing quite lights the fire of incentive like the continued success of a local rival. And as Dortmund march towards a potential second Champions League title, Schalke have been in media overload to establish just how close they are to their North Rhine-Westphalia rivals.
This season's third-place spot may have been taken by Sami Hyypia's Bayer Leverkusen Ã¢ÂÂ analysed by Michael Cox on these pages last week Ã¢ÂÂ but Schalke are in no mood to slip down the rankings.
"We will inevitably consolidate our position among the top three in Germany" came the battle cry from chairman Clemens TÃÂ¶nnies last week as his side further cemented their fourth-placed position with a 4-1 win against Hamburg, before overcoming a resolute Gladbach 1-0 last weekend.
Julian Draxler celebrates the winner against Gladbach
And they may well be right. From a financial point of view Schalke are technically already the second biggest team in Germany. According to the latest listings from Forbes, the Gelsenkirchen club are still one place ahead of Dortmund in the rankings of the sportÃ¢ÂÂs richest clubs.
Despite Dortmund actually reporting slightly higher profits and revenue than their rivals this year, Schalke are still considered the stronger of the two clubs in monetary terms, with a sturdier commercial backbone - their sponsors include such giants as Volkswagen, Gazprom and Adidas, while Dortmund still rest on existing deals with Puma and Evonik Ã¢ÂÂ as well as a more efficient matchday model that made ÃÂ£27.6m more than Dortmund despite housing almost 20,000 fewer fans in their Veltins Arena than the Westfalonstadion.
But it isnÃ¢ÂÂt just on the spreadsheets that Schalke are on the up. In terms of the quality of player on show in Gelsenkirchen and the type of player that the club has been able to attract, Schalke arenÃ¢ÂÂt too far off Dortmund, and have all but assured that fourth Champions League spot despite a turbulent managerial turnover in January.
In re-signing Klaas Jan Huntelaar to a new contract, Die Knappen have avoided the frequent problem of key players leaving at knockdown prices Ã¢ÂÂ a hurdle that Dortmund themselves are currently stumbling toward with their own star striker Ã¢ÂÂ whilst pointing out that they can match even the most demanding playerÃ¢ÂÂs ambitions.
Even when their young stars have moved on, as with Lewis HoltbyÃ¢ÂÂs hasty January exit to Tottenham, they have simply turned back to their eternal spring of capable youth players.
Julian Draxler, the closest thing Schalke has to a young, sporting messiah, is exactly who rose to the occasion in HoltbyÃ¢ÂÂs stead and has quickly come to symbolise the clubÃ¢ÂÂs hunger and desire to step out of DortmundÃ¢ÂÂs shadow.
At the tender age of 19, the young German has contributed 12 goals and seven assists this season Ã¢ÂÂ not as much pitching in as driving the team on. He shows the same promise displayed by a young Mario Gotze last season Ã¢ÂÂ a comparison that Schalke have been wise to act on by giving him a two-year contract extension until 2018, ending rumours of a switch to Dortmund.
Described as already being "one of the best players in the Bundesliga" by his general manager Horst Heldt, Draxler has been catapulted in to the German media Ã¢ÂÂ in no small part due to SchalkeÃ¢ÂÂs desire to show a bright new face at the same time as DortmundÃ¢ÂÂs former wonder-boy turns his back on the club for Bayern Munich.
Having already stated that heÃ¢ÂÂd only ever move to Dortmund if he was brainwashed Ã¢ÂÂ amidst a tidal wave of talk (almost exclusively from Heldt again) suggesting otherwise Ã¢ÂÂ the emerging midfielderÃ¢ÂÂs Royal Blue glow of loyalty has been used as a perfect example of just how Schalke are more adept at holding on to their stars.
With that new contract keeping the player at the club for the next five years, Schalke made light work of the announcement. With a fleet of lorries displaying the playerÃ¢ÂÂs image alongside the slogan Ã¢ÂÂWith Pride and PassionÃ¢ÂÂ the ploy is designed to drive around the surrounding area, delighting Schalke supporters and tormenting Dortmund fans in equal measure: war games in this football-mad battlefield.
Trucking with the enemy's minds: A Draxlermobile, today
For the majority of Schalke fans, the most notable sign of change has been beating Dortmund home and away in the Rivierderbys, for the first time in five years. In the most recent encounter, in early March, the opening goalscorer and man of the match was Draxler.
Upon scoring, the youngster ran to the crowd and pointed to the emblem on his chest. "A goal against Dortmund is something very special," was his simple post-match conclusion. "I grew up here: this is my region."
His region today, possibly his nation tomorrow. For Schalke, the intention of catching Dortmund and all their successes comes with a clear guideline: hold on to your star players and your days in the shadows may well be numbered.