Real Madrid may be pursuing the fabled Decima this season, but in one sense they got more than halfway there on Wednesday night, battering a shellshocked Schalke 6-1 in Gelsenkirchen to effectively secure their spot in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Two goals from Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo gave Carlo Ancelotti’s side an emphatic victory—with perhaps only feelings of pity toward their demoralised opponents preventing them from getting nearer to double figures over the closing 20 minutes.
Klass-Jan Huntelaar's goal in the closing stages, as fantastic as it undoubtedly was, could barely even be considered a consolation.
After witnessing a series of last-16 ties where competition favourites won well away from home—Barcelona at Manchester City and Bayern Munich at Arsenal, for example—Real underlined their own pedigree with the most one-sided triumph of all, albeit against opponents who folded easier than most might have expected.
Barring an historic defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu in three weeks' time, Real can already start thinking about potential quarter-final opponents.
Afterward, Ronaldo told reporters (via AFP):
The team has played a lot of good games and this is one more.
We played well and didn't allow Schalke to play at their best. We are happy and a step away from the next round.
The Schalke goalkeeper did very well and made good saves, but I believe in my ability and my teammates helped me a lot.
I am very happy to score two goals.
Beginning the knockout stages Ancelotti opted to go with his biggest names, with Bale joining Ronaldo and Benzema in attack. Immediately the fearsome trio looked threatening, although by the end of the first half only two of them had got on the scoresheet.
The one to break the deadlock was Benzema, and he took just 13 minutes to do so. Real Madrid had started brightly, but the goal was arguably the first time Bale had been strongly involved in the contest, as he cut inside and fed the ball to Ronaldo.
The Portuguese star attempted to backheel the ball back to his team-mate but instead it took a deflection, sending it perfectly into the path of Benzema, who made no mistake in beating Ralf Fahrmann from close range.
"After the early goal, we started getting a lot of room, that was the reason for our perfect night," Ancelotti later noted (again via AFP).
Schalke already seemed very much up against it, but just moments later they had a glorious chance to get back on terms. A pinpoint cross left Julian Draxler five yards out and with the goal at his mercy, but somehow Iker Casillas got across to palm the young forward’s attempt away.
Real continued to push after that, and soon they had their second. This time the roles were reversed, as Benzema provided for Bale—who proceeded to weave inside two Schalke defenders before firing a brilliant shot that he somehow curled around Fahrmann and in off the near post.
It could have been 4-0 or 5-0 by half-time, but Ronaldo in particular was suddenly unable to find his goalscoring touch. First he was left exasperated after a low right-footed shot had rebounded back into Fahrmann’s arms, before seeing the goalkeeper somehow flick another effort over the crossbar with the faintest of touches from his right boot.
Benzema, too, missed a great chance to double his haul as he slid in at the far post—but as the half-time whistle blew it seemed difficult to predict anything other than further Real Madrid strikes after the break.
So it proved. It took just seven minutes for Real to grab a third—effectively ending the tie as a viable contest—and this time it was Ronaldo who was able to celebrate. It was a typical finish from the reigning Ballon d’Or holder; using a stepover to create some separation from his marker before finding the far corner with an unerring left-footed strike.
Five minutes later it was 4-0, and a chance for Real Madrid to prove they can make goals of more than just individual quality. It was Ronaldo and Benzema who combined with a series of flicks and one-touch passes on the edge of the box, with the Frenchman going on to round Fahrmann and plant his shot in the goal.
With over 30 minutes remaining it was very much a case of damage limitation for Schalke, but thinking that way proved easier than actually acting that way, as Real soon made it five. It was a goal of unlikely ease, too; Sergio Ramos’ splitting the defence with his straight pass and Bale running onto it before clipping his shot around Fahrmann.
6 - A Spanish team has scored six goals away in Germany for the first time in European competition. Mullered.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 26, 2014
With two players needing one goal for a hat-trick—and Ronaldo surely not wanting to be left out of that party—further goals seemed almost inevitable, but in the end Real would only get one of them. It went to Ronaldo, finishing off another team move after substitute Isco had won the ball in midfield and given the ball to Benzema to play in his No. 7.
The goal was nevertheless significant, restoring Ronaldo to the top of the competition's scoring charts. He now has 11 for the campaign, one more than Paris St Germain's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
With just moments left on the clock, Schalke's fans were finally given a crumb of comfort. For what it is worth it was probably the goal of the night—Huntelaar volleying in off the underside of the bar from 25 yards—but it is highly unlikely to change the direction of this tie.
On this evidence, few teams will want to face Real Madrid over the remainder of the competition—Schalke must be cursing their luck that they still have another 90 minutes (on away turf!) to endure.
With a formidable attack in such blistering form, Real will feel confident of their chances against most of their likely quarter-final opponents—although it is tempting to wonder if their style, reliant as it often can be on individual moments of attacking genius, may prove far less effective against a well-oiled team unit like Bayern Munich. The German powerhouse are perhaps the only remaining team with a better claim to being the competition's favourites.
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The second leg is at the Santiago Bernabeu on March 18.
Prior to that, Real Madrid have three league games to overcome—firstly a city derby away to Atletico Madrid, then a home game with Levante and visit to Malaga.
Schalke, meanwhile, face Bayern Munich (a), Hoffenheim (h) and Augsburg (a) before heading for Spain, as they bid to improve on their current fourth spot in the Bundesliga.