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Football: Schalke wary of Stevens in Champions League battle

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Germany's Schalke 04 go into Wednesday's Champions League play-off first leg against Greece's PAOK Salonika on the back of a Bundesliga hammering and wary of former coach Huub Stevens.

Schalke were routed 4-0 at Wolfsburg last Saturday when their shredded defence leaked four second-half goals, while they also lost Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for the next four weeks with torn medial ligaments in his right knee.

Losing the two-leg play-off, with the return match on August 27 at PAOK's Stadio Toumba, would have financial consequences and Schalke are low on confidence after leaking seven goals in their first two Bundesliga games.

The Royal Blues made 27.8 million euros (US$37.2m), not including ticket revenue from the four home games, when they reached the last 16 of last season's Champions League, eventually losing to Turkey's Galatasaray.

Schalke fired Stevens in December after a poor run of results and replaced him with current coach Jens Keller.

The 59-year-old Stevens coached Schalke in 304 matches from 1996 to 2002 and then had a 15-month period back in Gelsenkirchen until he was sacked last December.

Having also worked at German clubs Hamburg, Cologne and Hertha Berlin, Stevens has ominously never lost at Schalke's Veltins Arena as the away coach.

"I am really looking forward to the reunion. Schalke has the first place in my heart," said Stevens.

Despite a difficult second spell in charge at Schalke, the Dutchman returns to Gelsenkirchen as a legend having steered them to the 1997 UEFA Cup in his first stint as coach, but the Royal Blues are wary.

"Even if Huub is through and through a Schalke man, he will do all he can to try to beat us," said Schalke's director of sport Horst Heldt.

Defensive midfielder Marco Hoeger also admitted having an uneasy feeling about Steven's return as PAOK replace Metalist Kharkiv, who were thrown out of the competition by UEFA for match-fixing.

"As a team, he knows us closely and will set his team out accordingly," said Hoeger.

Schalke are aiming to qualify for the Champions League in successive seasons for the first time in their history.

"We will take a giant step forward if we reach the group stages this year," said Heldt.

"Three or four years in succession would be optimal, then we could reach the next level."

That would mean threatening Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund's current stranglehold on the Bundesliga title and would also give the Royal Blues a better chance of keeping hold of stars like 19-year-old Julian Draxler.

Schalke lie 13th in the Bundesliga after two games and are already five points from the top five, where they want to be, but must stay positive.

"If we fall into self-pity and quarrel with ourselves that will not help for Wednesday," warned Hoeger.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130820/football-schalke-wary-stevens-champions-league-battle