There was no humiliation for Schalke this time around, but a 2-0 defeat to Real Madrid in Gelsenkirchen nevertheless leaves the Champions League holders as resounding favorites to progress to this year’s quarterfinals. At the same venue where they emerged with an emphatic 6-1 win at the same stage of last season’s competition, a first-half Cristiano Ronaldo header and an unstoppable late strike from Marcelo gave Madrid a sizable advantage to take back the Bernabeu in three weeks’ time.
An injury-hit Schalke team had come perilously close to having something tangible to take to Spain, but the tie was likely swung decisively in favor of Madrid in a five-minute spell deep into the second half. Soon after young substitute Feliz Platte had smashed a gloriously hit shot against Iker Casillas’ crossbar, Marcelo’s strike of equal quality took the winds out of the hosts’ sails.
In truth, though, the biggest danger to Real Madrid was their own complacency. Indeed it was a curious contest, largely lacking in intensity and with Carlo Ancelotti’s men always having an air of superiority but rarely getting out of second gear. Meanwhile, Schalke played with spirit but never seemingly with the belief that they could do anything other than avoid a resounding defeat. Much of that was down to the tactics of Roberto di Matteo. The Italian, who led Chelsea to the Champions League title three years ago, has helped Schalke rise up the Bundesliga table with a defensive-first approach since being appointed last October. But his three-man defensive line was essentially a five-pronged defense on Wednesday, symbolizing Schalke's lack of ambition even when behind.
Schalke should be afforded some leniency given the length of their injury list, which included Julian Draxler, Jefferson Farfan, Sidney Sam and their two leading goalkeepers. And they started encouragingly. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, back in the side after missing the last three matches with a domestic suspension, registered the contest’s first shot on target with a well-struck effort from distance that Casillas parried away 25 minutes in. But when the experienced Dutch striker had to hobble off with an injury less than 10 minutes later, Schalke were left without a focal point in attack and their early enthusiasm had eradicated.
By that point they had also fallen behind on the score sheet. The lack of decisiveness in Schalke’s play was evident as Dani Carvajal was allowed to deliver a cross from the right and Ronaldo to rise completely unmarked six yards out to head past stranded 19-year-old goalkeeper Timon Wellenreuther. Madrid initially threatened to further their advantage. Karim Benzema had a clear chance of running through onside, but was denied by the boot of Wellenreuther.
And then the match just descended into aimless mediocrity, with neither side seemingly overly eager to alter the status of the tie. Real Madrid, too, still showed signs of the damage inflicted by a 4-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid earlier this month. Brazilian midfielder Lucas Silva was a surprise inclusion in the lineup, making his full debut in place of Asier Illarramendi, and generally acquitted himself well. But there was a lack of sharpness further forward, particularly from an-off color Gareth Bale.
It might have proved costly had Platte’s strike been an inch lower, but, while Madrid will have to improve significantly if they are to retain the trophy, Marcelo’s effort makes the second leg surely a mere formality.