Galatasaray's glamorous experiment will have to pay for itself tomorrow night. The Turkish club brought in two modern greats of the game – Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder – in last month's transfer window in an attempt to make some deep inroads in Europe this spring.
"These investments will pay off," Galatasaray president Unal Aysal said at the time. "The revenue from the Champions League will cover the costs."
When the draw was first made, Galatasaray would not necessarily have been favourites for this last 16 meeting with Schalke, which begins this evening at the Turk Telekom Arena in Istanbul.
But the two clubs' fortunes have been in stark contrast over recent months. Schalke, who finished ahead of Arsenal in the group stage, are in freefall. They have won just one of their last 11 Bundesliga games, a run that has seen them drop from second to ninth in the table, leading to the dismissal of coach Huub Stevens. Lewis Holtby's move to Tottenham Hotspur was also brought forward to January.
While Schalke downsized, Galatasaray upgraded. In came two men to have won the Champions League in recent years: Sneijder, champion with Internazionale in 2010, and Drogba with Chelsea in 2012. The two players may have their best years behind them (thought Sneijder is somehow still only 28 years old), but their experience and their quality is without question. They could certainly make the difference; indeed they are expected to after what they did last week.
On Friday evening Galatasaray were playing at Akhisar Belediye. With the score 0-0 deep into the second half, coach Fatih Terim threw on Drogba for his debut. Within seven minutes Galatasaray were ahead. Sneijder knocked a pass down the right to Burak Yilmaz, whose cross to the far post was met by Drogba, leaping with that remarkable power to direct the ball into the far top corner.
That was just the start but it bodes well for tomorrow night. Drogba, certainly, is still a forward with few peers in the game when he is fit and focussed.
"It gave us a morale boost ahead of the Schalke game," Terim said of his scoring debut. "When he is fit, Drogba has the ability both to keep the ball for us up front and to lead the team. When you add Sneijder to that, we will perform much better. Both have integrated with the team very quickly."
Galatasaray have won five of their last eight games and are six points clear at the top of the Turkish league. There is some confidence, then, that the two can help them to get further in this tournament than ever before. Galatasaray were beaten in the semi-finals of the European Cup by Steaua Bucharest in 1989 but in the Champions League era they can only point to one quarter-final defeat to Real Madrid in 2001. They should go at least that far this year.
Schalke find themselves in a very different position, although can at least take solace in the return from an eye injury of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
"It's important that the 'Hunter' is fit again," said midfielder Marco Höger, although Schalke will also be without Atsuto Uchida, Ibrahim Afellay and Kyriakos Papadopoulos.
Kick-off 7.45pm, Türk Telekom Arena
TV Sky Sports 4 Referee W Collum (Scot)
Odds Galatasaray 6-5. Draw 5-2. Schalke 5-2.Reuse content