You could argue that Schalke were handed the hardest draw of all German teams in the Champions League last 16 when they were paired with Real Madrid.
The Spanish giants are one of the most in-form teams in the world at the moment. Carlo Ancelotti’s team are on top of La Liga and are now on a 26-game unbeaten streak following their 3-0 win over Elche at the weekend. That run is the second best in club history, and they are showing no signs of stopping.
Schalke, though, are on a run of their own—their best of the season, in fact. They have only lost one of their last 12 league matches and welcomed back key players from injury. Jens Keller’s team is playing arguably the best football of their campaign and may be a much harder proposition for Madrid than many imagine.
Schalke started the season with several defensive issues. They conceded 16 goals in their first seven league games, their worst start in over 26 years, and missed several key defenders to injury.
Recently, though, their defense has been a great source of strength. They have given up just two goals in their last seven games, and the defensive partnership of Joel Matip and Felipe Santana has played a big part in that. Schalke are unbeaten in the eight games they have started this season, kept six clean sheets and conceded just two goals.
If Schalke are to have any chance of stopping the competition’s best offense, they must retain that defensive form. Keller has to stick with the Matip-Santana partnership even if captain and first-choice centre-back Benedikt Hoewedes regains fitness in time.
The two complement each other, and lineup consistency will be key in avoiding any tactical disruptions.
A lot will also depend on who Keller picks to play in the fullback positions and how they perform against Madrid’s always dangerous wide play. In Atsuto Uchida, Marco Hoger and Dennis Aogo, they will be without three options back there. It may be a case of having to rely on Tim Hoogland, who only has four league starts, and the 20-year-old Sead Kolasinac, a trained centre-back.
Balance Conservatism and Intrepidity
If the Royal Blues are to pull the ultimate upset and send Madrid packing, they cannot afford to make any mistakes. Keller has to get his tactics exactly right from the start, especially considering that the first leg is at home. Historically, only two teams (out of 85) have ever advanced after losing the first leg at home in a European tie.
They cannot play “Hurrafussball,” as Schalke midfielder Roman Neustadter put it in the Dattelner Morgenpost. “The Champions League is all about small details,” he declared. In other words, Schalke have to tread the fine line of minimizing risk all while effectively carrying out their attacking game.
It is exactly those small details that nearly cost them in the group stages as individual errors resulted in back-to-back 3-0 losses to Chelsea that put them in a must-win position in their final match.
Finding that balance will not be easy, either.
Schalke have either defended well and squeezed out wins (they have the second-worst offense of all teams in the knockout stages) or gone for broke and lost by large margins. They cannot do both against a team as quick and unpredictable like Madrid, so Keller must select his approach wisely.
To advance, Schalke may have to go against the widespread German philosophy of attacking quick and at any cost and accept a more rigorous defensive approach, even if it means taking a 0-0 to Spain for the second leg. Bayer Leverkusen’s horror start against Paris Saint-Germain showed that the Champions League necessitates a more cerebral defense-first approach.
Madrid remain the big favorites, of course, but if Schalke set up right, continue to play the way they have defensively and focus on Madrid’s key players, they may stand a chance at a good result.
The spotlight will undoubtedly be on Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, but Madrid’s success this season is founded on their ability to take over games. Whereas under Mourinho their approach relied heavily on counter-attacks and quick transitions, they are much more in control of matches now thanks to their three-midfielder setup.
Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso and Angel di Maria, of all players, have formed a versatile, formidable and tough-to-beat midfield trio. It is reasonable to expect them to control much of the game, so Schalke’s performance hinges on being able to effectively counteract and find ways through the Madrid trio.
Neustadter and Kevin-Prince Boateng are likely to start in midfield, so the question is how Keller will set up in front of them.
The talented, albeit inexperienced Max Meyer, has been his first-choice attacking midfielder recently, but the Madrid game may necessitate playing a third central midfielder. Leon Goretzka has started out wide on the left recently, but being a natural central midfielder, he could be the ideal option.
If anything, maybe history can give Schalke supporters a slight boost of confidence. Madrid have only won once in their 25 trips to Germany, and that was almost 14 years ago.
Either way, Schalke will need a lot of things to go their way if they are to progress, but this would not be the first time a team from the Ruhr beat the odds and knocked out the Galacticos.
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