Real Madrid booked their place in the Champions League quarterfinals, but did nothing to arrest their alarming slump in form, with a 4-3 defeat to Schalke at the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday, leaving the holders desperately clinging on for a 5-4 aggregate win.
Possessing a seemingly comfortable 2-0 lead from the first leg in Germany, the hosts twice fell behind in the opening half to an increasingly encouraged Schalke side, only for Cristiano Ronaldo to bail the hosts out of real peril with a brace of authoritative headers. Yet even when Schalke’s bubble of optimism looked to have been well and truly burst by Karim Benzema’s goal early in the second half, the matter was not settled. Substitute Leroy Sané curled in and then former Madrid striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar sent paces racing with his second goal of the night six minutes from time.
With nerves visibly pulsating through their team, Madrid avoided catastrophe, but this was a dramatic departure from the team that eviscerated Schalke 9-2 over two legs at the same stage of last season’s Champions League. If they are to again go all the way and lift the trophy, a sizable improvement on the insipid display offered up on Tuesday will be required. The whistles that were frequently breathed down from the Bernabeu crowd will have rung loudly in the ears of the man who delivered a 10th European Cup, but who now finds himself under pressure in the hottest of hot seats, Carlo Ancelotti.
After a draw at home to Villarreal and defeat at Athletic Bilbao in the past 10 days, Real Madrid had seen their four-point lead over Barcelona in La Liga overturned. At times on Tuesday evening, it appeared that a far more stunning blow was about to be delivered to end their defense of the Champions League and throw a club that permanently lives on the verge of crisis into full-blown disaster mode.
Real Madrid had been far from impressive in Germany three weeks ago, yet Roberto di Matteo’s Schalke had not been good enough to take advantage. Despite still missing key performers like Julian Draxler, the Germans this time were able to capitalize on a performance from the hosts that from the very start was riddled with errors and a startling lack of intensity.
With more composure in the final third, the visitors could already have been a couple of goals to the good by the time Christian Fuchs put them in front in the 20th minute. It was a goal that embodied Madrid’s failings, with the dangerous Max Meyer allowed to waltz through a cavernous hole in the hosts’ midfield, before Tranquillo Barnetta’s low cross was left to fall for Fuchs at the back post. And the errors extended to Iker Casillas, who allowed the wing-back’s cross to find the net, despite it being directed straight at him.
Ronaldo was the one Madrid player at least giving the impression of being tuned into the match, a fact he demonstrated with a powerful headed equalizer from Toni Kroos’ corner and a reaction of frustration rather than celebration. But his teammates failed to get the message. Huntelaar had already struck the bar before he seized upon some soft goalkeeping and defending to finish after Meyer’s shot had been parried.
Yet, despite a famous win on the night, there is plenty of reason for Schalke to rue not turning it into a place in the last eight. Ultimately, it was to prove their own defensive failings either side of the interval that cost them. First, in the final minute of the opening half Ronaldo was allowed a free header from Fabio Coentrao’s cross, and then Benzema strode past two defenders in the box to finish coolly and put Madrid in front on the night for the first time.
Before the hour mark, Sane’s impressive contribution off the bench was highlighted by a curling strike past an unmoved Casillas. Schalke, though, couldn’t avoid the match slipping into a lull for much of the second half. The hint of a return of some assurance to the Real Madrid side was facilitated in large part by introduction off the bench of Luka Modric after four months on the sidelines. But it is clear that it will take more than the midfielder’s return to change Madrid’s fortunes. Kroos continues to look physically spent, while Gareth Bale appeared a man tormented by the criticism he had taken from his own club’s supporters earlier in the season.
Madrid were deserving of only defeat to show from their lackluster night’s work, and Huntelaar’s shot that rifled in off the underside of the crossbar ensured that’s what they got. Yet the champions escaped a hugely uncomfortable last few minutes to just about stay alive.