A VAR intervention meant there was a two-and-a-half minute delay between Schalke being awarded a penalty against Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday and the ball being placed on the spot. Amine Harit and Daniel Caligiuri stated their cases to take the kick, but both men were unsuccessful. Instead, Nabil Bentaleb took the ball off opposition goalkeeper Bernd Leno seven seconds after the penalty was awarded – and that was that.
“He really begged me to let him to take it,” Caligiuri told reporters in the mixed zone, but that implies the German midfielder had a say. In reality, he didn’t: Bentaleb clutched the ball under his arm when Harit approached, before tucking it up his shirt as Caligiuri moved towards him. The former Tottenham midfielder may have only come on with 24 minutes left to play, but no one was taking the spot-kick off him.
He scored too, securing a 2-0 victory over Schalke’s fellow Champions League challengers and moving Domenico Tedesco’s side up to third. Schalke have now put away all eight of their penalties this season. Tedesco’s policy of not having a fixed taker has worked, although it’s notable that Bentaleb has scored exactly half of their efforts from 12 yards.
“The Algerian is someone who shows no nerves in such moments,” wrote regional newspaper Der Westen in the aftermath, “but he’s also someone who can sometimes easily get on the nerves of others.”
It should be said that Caligiuri insisted Bentaleb “deserved it” given his performances in training the previous week. Still, there was a certain irony that near-freezing temperatures on Sunday saw the midfielder come in from the cold, having been left out of the squad by Tedesco for previous meetings with Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim, chiefly because of a bad attitude.
“Everything’s bad if he’s not playing,” said sporting directior Christian Heidel in the build-up to the Hoffenheim game, the second of the two matches Bentaleb missed in February. “If we won 5-0 and Nabil had only played a half, he walks around as if we’d lost 5-0. That can’t happen.”
That tallied with what Tedesco told SportBild in February: “His behaviour in training recently hasn’t pleased us. That’s why he also wasn’t in Munich [for the Bayern game].”
According to SportBild, Bentaleb had trained halfheartedly and gone in unnecessarily hard on team-mates during practice matches. That was far from ideal for a team who already had a few injury problems to contend with.
It’s not the first time Bentaleb has had his attitude questioned. Similar problems arose at Tottenham, which was something The Set Pieces put to Heidel on Sunday.
“I have to be honest, when it comes to this mentality – and I mean in general – that’s just how the North African player is,” he said. “They’re very, very ambitious and always want to play. When you buy that sort of player, you know that. Despite that, he’s a brilliant footballer.
“I’ve had North African players [in the past],” Heidel replied when The Set Pieces asked him to clarify what he meant by his comments. “They’re very proud people. They are really ambitious and they can forget that you have to have thoughts about the team. That’s not meant in a bad way – that’s just the mentality! When I talk with Nabil, he’s the loveliest guy in the world. He’s a really super lad but when he’s in training or when the line-up is announced, he has to know he’s one of 23 or 24 people.”
Bentaleb was undoubtedly a favourite of previous coach Markus Weinzierl, missing just two games in the 2016/17 Bundesliga season – both due to suspension. He was also one of the Royal Blues’ best players in a difficult campaign which saw Schalke finish in the bottom half for only the second time in 17 years.
“I was injured quite a long time and when I came back, the team was only winning. I was not part of the plan,” Bentaleb explained to The Set Pieces in 2016 when asked why he had departed Tottenham – initially on loan – earlier that year.
Bentaleb missed the final two months of 2017 through injury, but he’d spent three games on the bench before then too. Schalke went on an 11-match unbeaten run in the Bundesliga before Christmas, with Bentaleb only featuring in one of those games.
It wasn’t that Tedesco didn’t take to him when he arrived in the summer. Bentaleb began the season as a regular but the Schalke manager will do what he thinks is best for the team regardless of the stature of any individual.
In the summer, for instance, he surprisingly took the captaincy off Benedikt Höwedes – an institution at Schalke – and gave it to goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann. Tedesco couldn’t guarantee that Höwedes would play every week, which eventually led to his loan move to Juventus.
So when Bentaleb stepped out of line at the start of the year, it wasn’t going to faze his coach – even though the Algerian is the club’s second-most expensive player of all time at €19 million.
Last week, Tedesco consulted his squad about the prospect of bringing Bentaleb back into the fold. “The team clearly said: ‘We need Nabil, we want Nabil,’” he told local journalists after Sunday’s game.
His subsequent performance may have been short, but giving Bentaleb that chance was “a vote of confidence in an important game,” according to Tedesco.
“He just has to keep going now,” the Royal Blues manager said. “Just keep working. [There are] some really important moments and games ahead of us and we need him. It’s a step in the right direction and we’re really glad.”
Heidel described him as “one of those who can make the difference.” That’s what Schalke will hope for between now and the end of the season as they look to return to the Champions League after a three-year hiatus. His team-mates, meanwhile, will just hope for a look-in when it comes to penalties. Sunday suggests they shouldn’t bother.