Thon: It's another special night
When FIFA.com called Olaf Thon, the ringtone on his mobile phone sounded the well-known chorus of the 1992 hit single All that She Wants by Swedish quartet Ace of Base. A typical tune from the decade which serves as a daily reminder of the former midfielder’s heyday, during which he won the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ with West Germany and seven years later lifted UEFA Cup as captain of Schalke.
That 1997 triumph surprised many across the football world as the working-class German club beat hotly-fancied Inter Milan in the final, so you can imagine the excitement Thon felt when the draw for this year's UEFA Champions League quarter-final once again pitted his beloved Die Königsblauen against I Nerazzurri.
"I thought back 14 years to when we won the UEFA Cup against Inter at the San Siro on penalties. Now the story is going to be repeated and of course I'm hoping for another Schalke success," Thon told FIFA.com on his initial thoughts after the draw was made.
"This quarter-final is going to be quite different to the final back then. We had the support of around 25,000 Schalke fans. We're expecting about 2,000 on Tuesday, but it's still going to be a very special occasion and the atmosphere will be great."
Amazingly, one member of the Inter squad from 1997 is still very much a part of the Serie A side today. For Argentinian international Javier Zanetti, the clash with the Royal Blues is of particular importance as he seeks revenge for that final defeat 14 years ago.
"He was very hot-tempered and stubborn back then. He couldn't believe they lost, but he kept going and is still a driving force with a huge amount of experience. Time doesn't seem to have affected him," said Thon of the 37-year-old Inter skipper.
Zanetti and Co. are clear favourites for most people heading into the double-header against Schalke. Leonardo's star ensemble have also impressed Thon, who is a keen admirer of the Italian title holders:
"Inter have a well-balanced and experienced team with great players. Wesley Sneijder, Maicon, Goran Pandev, Dejan Stankovic and above all Samuel Eto'o form a very strong side which isn’t competing for the Italian title for nothing."
He's surprised me in every respect. I didn't think he'd perform this well.
Inter's undoubted quality aside, the coach of German amateur side VfB Huls believes his former club have a decent chance of progressing: "I'd say Schalke's chances of going through are about 45 per cent, because Inter are susceptible at the back. It's going to be very tight and might even have to be decided on penalties again. Schalke need to be confident, minimise their errors and make sure they win the challenges."
'Raul the key to success'Thon, who plied his trade in Gelsenkirchen between 1983 and 1988 as well as between 1994 and 2002, highlighted two Schalke players as having a key role to perform. "The focus will be on Christoph Metzelder and Benedikt Howedes because it'll be their job to take Eto'o out of the game and keep it tight. The Cameroonian is extremely mobile and could cause the two of them problems," said the 44-year-old, who is nonetheless confident in the abilities of the two Knappen centre-backs.
At the other end of the field, the 52-time Germany international rates Champions League record goalscorer Raul as the man whose nous at this level could prove vital. "He's surprised me in every respect. I didn't think he'd perform this well. He looked very static, tired and slow when he arrived, but he's since proven that he's a world-class player. He'll be crucial to any success against Inter."
Schalke, currently 11th in the Bundesliga, have never reached a Champions League semi-final before, making this the perfect opportunity for new coach Ralf Rangnick, now in his second spell in charge, to boost morale around the club which dismissed former boss Felix Magath just a few weeks ago.
"I was of the opinion that we should have let Magath continue but the seeds had been sewn. Rangnick is no stranger to Schalke, he'll settle in quickly and he's a great communicator," said the one-time Bayern Munich campaigner on the recent managerial changeover.
Thon, who was a member of the supervisory board at Schalke between 2005 and 2008 and subsequently took a role in the club's marketing department until April 2009, maintains a close relationship with his former employers and will be in the stands for the second leg at the Arena AufSchalke. "I think Schalke can get a draw in Milan. The ideal would be 1-1, but with first legs often stifled by tactics, I'm going for a 0-0. That would still be a decent result for the team," he concluded.