It was a tale of two signings as Schalke exposed the flaws in this Galatasaray side despite their recent injection of glamour
After all the excitement and all the hype, Galatasaray's big night in the Champions League fell rather flat. A Schalke side that has been in dire recent form went to Istanbul as patsies in the great narrative of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder. But from the point of view of the home fans, they showed themselves rather better than had been anticipated, exposing the flaws that exist in this Galatasaray side despite their recent injection of glamour.
It is Sneijder who fascinates. He is only 28 but he has the air of an older man. It's not just the thinning hair; he seems also a player out of time. Something very strange happened to him at the 2010 World Cup, when he scored five goals and apparently decided to reinvent himself. What's odd is that he didn't adjust to a creaking body – as, say, Ryan Giggs has – or to burgeoning skills and confidence – Gareth Bale – or even to the changing tactical dictats of the game – Darijo Srna. Rather he seems unilaterally to have decided he was an old-fashioned No10.
No10s have their place, of course, but it is in Argentina 25 years ago. Sneijder, having been nurtured at Ajax a decade ago, was a very modern attacking midfielder. He may never have been the most industrious worker, but he tracked, he pressed, he moved. Then overnight, he seems to have decided to play 10 yards further forward and to wait. It was like a marine suddenly deciding he wanted to be a hussar and turning up to battle riding a horse and wearing a fluffy hat.
At Inter he became a gifted anachronism, something highlighted by the ill-fated appointment of Gian Piero Gasperini. Where did he fit in Gasperini's 3-4-3? Nowhere. But where did he fit in any modern system? Not on the left of a 4-3-3 where he was tried. Not in a 4-4-2. Not in any system with a back three. Not in a 4-3-1-2, as was demonstrated when Schalke, their full-backs cavorting in acres of empty space, demolished Inter in the quarter-final of the Champions League in 2011. Only as the central creator in a 4-2-3-1 could he be accommodated and even then his diminishing mobility was an issue. Other players have been left behind by the tactical evolution of the game but Sneijder is perhaps unique in having wilfully stepped into the past.
So while he is, without doubt, a player of great talent, the question was always going to be what Galatasaray were planning to do with him. The troubling answer was to stick him out on the left in a 4-4-2, with licence to drift infield; given Sneijder spent an awful lot of time at Inter demanding to be played infield, it wasn't a move to inspire great confidence. From an attacking point of view, he was fitfully involved in the first half, and it was his through-pass to Drogba after 18 minutes that led to the shot that was parried for Hamit Altintop to slam against the bar.
His vision and technique remain as sharp as ever but he seemed to be playing at a pace much slower than anything else on the pitch. Given Altintop, who started on the right, also tends to drift inside, it meant Galatasaray were extremely narrow in midfield, something that presents two problems. Firstly, if you have Drogba in your side, not to have attacking width than can provide crosses seems to waste a significant part of his strength. And secondly, with the flanks vacant, the opposing full-backs are invited forwards. This wasn't quite the savaging Schalke's Atsuto Uchida and Hans Sarpei inflicted on Inter two years ago but with Marco Höger especially keen to push on, it wasn't far off it at times in the first half. Add in the fact that Galatasaray struggled all night to deal with crosses – Fernando Muslera is an acrobatic keeper who spreads drama wherever he goes but not somebody you'd trust to claim a high ball – and that becomes a major issue.
Sneijder, not surprisingly, was withdrawn at half-time. Whether for reasons of tactics or fitness didn't really matter: the arrival of Nordin Amrabat at least partly disrupted the combination of Höger and Julian Draxler. With Albert Riera at left-back, though, the flow was never going to be stemmed entirely and twice the 19-year-old Draxler created good opportunities in the second half with cutbacks.
Drogba, without being at his best, was rather more impressive and there are signs already of a link-up with Burak Yilmaz, a player in a three-year purple patch of goalscoring form. It was Burak who put Galatasaray ahead, deftly flicking the ball over Benedikt Höwedes before crashing in a finish. Twice – six minutes before half-time and 13 minutes form full-time – Drogba laid in Burak: the first time he drew a save from Timo Hildebrand; the second time he shot just wide.
Defensive issues, though, always threatened to undermine Galatasaray. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar just failed to get on the end of a Höwedes header from a Jefferson Farfán corner and Semih Kaya was fortunate a Farfán cross that struck him in front of goal cannoned onto the outside of the post. In fact, the only surprise when Schalke equalised just before half-time was that the goal did not come from a cross. Rather Felipe Melo's heavy touch allowed Jermaine Jones to steal possession, the USA international played it to Huntelaar and then continued his run, sweeping the ball home after Farfán, running in to Huntelaar's pass, had squared for him.
Amrabat's presence offered more structure and the second half was tighter than the first but it would still be a major surprise if there were no goals in the second leg. The key is whether Galatasaray can tighten up defensively to allow their undoubted attacking qualities to take advantage. Sitting deeper and playing more direct to Drogba may suit them, but Schalke have the advantage.