A 2-0 advantage means Real Madrid go into the second leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie with Schalke at the Bernabeu as overwhelming favorites to progress. Yet recent results will ensure that the performance of Carlo Ancelotti’s men is put under intense scrutiny. Since the start of March, Real Madrid have seen a four-point advantage at the top of La Liga turned into a one-point deficit to Barcelona. A draw at home to Villarreal was followed by a defeat at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday to further a downturn in form since the current European champions won a Spanish record 22 straight matches before the Christmas break.
While the team is missing Luka Modric and James Rodríguez to injury, much of the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of the famed BBC forward trio. Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo have each seen their performances and statistics drop off, with Bale’s struggles -- going eight games without a goal -- the most notable. Yet Ancelotti continues to reject the suggestion that the team would benefit from an alteration to the front three that fired Madrid to a 10th European Cup triumph last season.
“While they are working well together, nothing will change because they have given so much to this team,” he said, reports Spanish publication AS. “I have total faith in them, there is no doubt at all about that. They have suffered a slump in form but not all three of them. The team hasn’t been helping the forwards as much as they should.
“As I say we won’t be changing our identity because it has produced results for us and it’s the system that we’re all comfortable with. When I make changes to the midfield, it’s to give the team more balance or to inject freshness but the system, whether we’re playing 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, remains the same.”
Ancelotti will be hoping the return of Modric will see the team regain the balance displayed before he went down with injury in November, and he has revealed that the midfielder will be given a 30-minute cameo in the second half on Tuesday.
After relinquishing the league lead, thoughts are already turning to a potential title showdown at Barcelona in two weeks’ time. First, though, they will aim to avoid disaster against Schalke. Madrid secured victory in Gelsenkirchen in the first knockout round for a second season running thanks to goals from Ronaldo and Marcelo in an encounter short on thrills.
Schalke’s hopes of a pulling off an extraordinary turnaround are hampered by a continued spate of injuries to the likes of Julian Draxler and Jefferson Farfan, while Kevin-Prince Boateng is suspended. Although coach Roberto di Matteo has not ruled out his side’s chances of coming away from the Spanish capital with a famous result, he has rejected the notion that Real Madrid are there for the taking.
“I don't believe Real Madrid are in a crisis,” he said, reports Sky Sports. “I hope the media is right that the strikers are not in good form. We will need a little bit of luck as well tomorrow night to get a positive result.
"The game on Saturday was different. It was an away game in Bilbao, who are a very strong team, and they didn't allow Real Madrid to get into their flow. Tomorrow they play in front of their home fans and I think it will be different.
Prediction: The first leg three weeks ago was a poor match lacking in intensity, and there could well be a repeat on Tuesday. Schalke’s uninspiring performances under Di Matteo are beginning to be reflected in their results and they have now dropped out of the top four in the Bundesliga. Real Madrid, meanwhile, are now lacking the intensity required to make a top-heavy team of stars function. Still, they will have enough quality to comfortably ensure their passage to the last eight of the Champions League.
Real Madrid 2-0 Schalke
Kickoff time: 3:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1