Magath mystery deepens amid Schalke's European celebrations

A breeze of optimism swept through Gelsenkirchen yesterday after Schalke 04 rescued their otherwise mediocre season with a surprise spot in the Champions League quarter-finals following a 3-1 win over Valencia on Wednesday.

Leading up to their qualification for the last eight for only the second time, Schalke had to endure months of sharp criticism following a lacklustre Bundesliga season. Only days ago the future looked bleak with the team struggling just five points off the relegation play-off spot in the league and hopes of international football quickly fading as fans directed their anger against the coach, Felix Magath.

Hours before the game against Valencia there were reports that Schalke had decided to terminate Magath's contract at the end of the season, two years early, with the coach saying he knew nothing about it.

Their 4-2 aggregate win over Valencia, secured in front of a surprisingly supportive home crowd, and a 1-0 win over the holders Bayern Munich last week that sent them through to the German Cup final seem to have turned the tide.

"The results in the Bundesliga were not so good, but then we made the German Cup final and now the last eight in the Champions League, so things are looking up and such moments make you feel very good," said the Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer yesterday. "We are now among the top eight teams in Europe and we want to go into the next round fighting as well as bring this confidence into the Bundesliga," said Neuer, whose form this season has been one of the team's few consistent positives.

The Champions League last eight spot means the debt-ridden club are also receiving an unexpected financial injection, a fact not lost with their management.

Schalke's outstanding European run, having topped their group and won every home game this season, has even taken some players by surprise, including 33-year-old Raul, who joined after 16 trophy-rich years at Real Madrid.

The triple Champions League winner, who is the competition's record goalscorer, has not played in a quarter-final for years with Real exiting at the last 16 stage every time since the 2005-06 season.

"Raul told me after the game, 'Think about it, we had to change to Schalke to finally play another Champions League quarter-final'," said the defender Christoph Metzelder, who had played at the Spanish club with Raul before they both joined Schalke last year.

But for all that Magath missed his team's training yesterday, fuelling speculation about his future. His assistants ran the session, with Schalke saying a comment would be made clarifying the situation "in the coming days".

Schalke, last season's Bundesliga runners-up, are struggling in 10th place. Magath's numerous signings, no fewer than 40 in in the space of 18 months, have mostly failed to deliver, hurting the debt-ridden club.

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