The UEFA Champions League returns, and we're into the meaty, main-course meal. The knockout stages are when the fun truly starts...except if you're Schalke, and you've had the misfortune of drawing defending champions Real Madrid for the second year in a row.
Roberto Di Matteo's Schalke conceded at least one goal in five of the six Champions League group-stage games but kept it tight when it mattered against Maribor and sealed qualification on the final matchday.
The former Chelsea boss has introduced a 3-5-2 formation to a Veltins Arena crowd very much used to a more rigid 4-2-3-1 look, with Benedikt Howedes, Joel Matip and new boy Matija Nastasic settling into a rhythm at the back.
That familiarity will be key to a grinding team performance, as the injury list Di Matteo must contend with is pretty lengthy; WhoScored.com list Julian Draxler, Ralf Fahrmann, Jefferson Farfan, Sead Kolasinac, Leon Goretzka and Chinedu Obasi as out.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar should come in up front, but the central midfield selection is something of a lucky dip.
Real Madrid Setup
Sergio Ramos, James Rodriguez and Luka Modric are all absent for the trip to Germany, per the Daily Mail, and it doesn't look good for Fabio Coentrao or Sami Khedira, either.
Luckily, Carlo Ancelotti has an immensely deep squad to call upon and will be able to field a fearsome XI all the same. Expect a 4-3-3 shape and the "BBC" troika of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo to play—the latter seems obsessed with leaving Raul Gonzalez and Lionel Messi in his tracks when it comes to the goalscoring records.
Toni Kroos returns to Germany and will anchor a changed midfield, while Asier Illarramendi could grab another start alongside the magnificent Isco. Nacho is a last resort in defence if Pepe fails to prove his fitness.
Key Point 1: Nightmare of 2014
Close to a year ago, Real Madrid smashed Schalke 6-1 at the Veltins Arena on their way to lifting the UEFA Champions League trophy for an unprecedented 10th time. The Royal Blues' first prerogative will be to ensure that many of the same mistakes are not made again.
First up, there should be no high line against the "BBC" trio; that's an incredibly risky strategy, and it could backfire in dramatic circumstances. Valencia managed it earlier this season by matching three vs. three at the back, but it was a bold, bold move—the sort that works one every 10 times.
Second, the forwards will need to press the centre-backs in possession. They'll match up two vs. two and be able to span the pitch; Huntelaar will need to get through a lot more work than he did last year, and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting would be a strong play alongside him due to his energy levels.
Lastly, the need to protect Howedes at right-centre-back is both obvious and great. He won't be as exposed as last year—in 2014 he played as an actual right-back—but Cristiano Ronaldo will be licking his lips ahead of this one. Di Matteo would be wise to drop a midfield in permanent protection on that side.
Key Point 2: A Frustrating Night?
Real Madrid haven't been clicking in full lately, and the nature of some of their victories have made the fans a little uneasy; they worry about the next potential slip-up.
Schalke are club in a state of permacrisis, but Di Matteo has steadily calmed the surrounding waters. He's taken the Royal Blues back to a sturdy, organised template of football and is building a sound footing before pushing forward.
That means Real Madrid, and specifically Carlo Ancelotti, will need to have the attacking game plan spot on ahead of this visit. Any club facing los Blancos now will simply watch how Atletico Madrid have stifled them six times in a row this season and attempt to emulate some of Diego Simeone's wrinkles and strategies.
The resounding memory from this match last February was Angel Di Maria jinking his way through the low block Jens Keller put up and ruining Schalke's defensive setup. Without him (sold) and James (injured), that dribbling burden will fall to Isco from deeper positions. His midfield team-mates of Kroos and Illarramendi won't be of any use in this department, that's for sure.
It's an interesting balance for Di Matteo to try to strike—press and potentially give Isco space, or gift the ball to Nacho and ask them to pass through us?—and if he gets it right, Real are in trouble.