The last time Real Madrid played Schalke in the Veltins-Arena, a year ago, they put six past them. The last time Carlo Ancelotti faced Roberto Di Matteo it was August 2010 and his Chelsea side scored six against West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League. On Wednesday night, in the Champions League last 16, a hard-working 1-0 will do.
Real Madrid were favourites to win the tournament at the end of the group stage but they are no longer such a sure bet. They have key players out injured and the talent left on the pitch has looked tired. The team ran 9km less than Atletico Madrid when beaten 4-0 in the derby earlier this month.
Up against a club rooted in the graft of the local mining community and with a replica coalface tunnel leading out on to the pitch to remind everyone of that, Ancelotti’s players will know they have to put a shift in to come away with anything. The coach repeated the word “intensity” several times yesterday in his pre-match media appearance.
Schalke have moved up from eighth to fourth in the Bundesliga since Di Matteo took over in October and while it is rather bland fare both off and on the pitch from the German-speaking Swiss-Italian, they feel they can upset the holders.
With a five-man defence out to smother a Real front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, which has recently been starved of service, Schalke have a chance to add to the woes of a squad rattled by the absence of key players.
Sports science has made muscle pulls and tears easier to predict than ever before, but there is no accounting for a commercial department insisting on a December friendly in Dubai against Milan, or the demands that the highest-earning players are on the pitch at all times.
Real might be able to have every squad member rigged up with a state-of-the-art accelerometer in training which shows the over-compensation on right or left sides that indicates the beginnings of muscle injuries, but there was no predicting Sergio Ramos’s hamstring strain two weeks ago – and he remains a month away from a return to action.
Others who played throughout most of the summer because of the World Cup, such as Luka Modric and James Rodriguez, are also out.
Those in the squad who have not been stopped completely by injury have slowed down. Midfielder Toni Kroos made six assists in the first 13 games of the season but has contributed only one in the last 10 matches.
Schalke are not injury-free. First-choice goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann, Jefferson Farfan and Julian Draxler are all out, but if the Germans sit back and put the emphasis on Real breaking them down, it will be interesting to see how the visitors manage without Ramos passing out from the back and the creative powers of Modric and James in midfield.
Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo all scored twice in that 6-1 win at Schalke last February but since the turn of the year Lionel Messi, with 14 goals for Barcelona, has more than the 11 goals the three Real forwards have managed collectively.
Ancelotti was confident on the eve of the game, announcing that defender Pepe would start after a three-week absence, and said: “We are the holders and we will do everything we can to win the tournament again.” But a positive result looks far more within reach for Di Matteo than it did when the draw was made in December.
Real have work to do. Stood in that famous coalface tunnel before kick-off, they will at least get the perfect reminder of that.Reuse content