Having scraped into the Bundesliga's top four last term, FC Schalke 04 are making a habit of cutting it fine – they did it again in the group stage, but now face Real Madrid CF.
FC Schalke 04 have made something of a habit of cutting it fine in recent months. After securing a top-four berth in the Bundesliga on the final day of last season, the Royal Blues scraped a 4-3 aggregate victory over PAOK FC in the UEFA Champions League play-offs. Jens Keller's men left it equally late to rubber-stamp their spot in the knockout stage, requiring a matchday six win against ten-man FC Basel 1893 to progress. The Gelsenkirchen club will be more than happy should that trend continue against last-16 opponents Real Madrid CF.
Story so far
Despite a shaky domestic start, Schalke opened their Group E campaign with a 3-0 success against FC Steaua Bucureşti and a 1-0 triumph at Basel. Unusually, an improvement in their domestic form coincided with back-to-back 3-0 defeats by pacesetters Chelsea FC. A goalless draw with Steaua in Romania made victory essential in their concluding game; Keller's troops came good with a 2-0 win – albeit after the Swiss champions had a player sent off – to leapfrog their rivals into second.
Schalke needed three points in their last match at home to Basel and for long periods it looked like they might end up frustrated. Keller's team suffered scares of their own, but the 31st-minute dismissal of Basel's Ivan Ivanov proved a turning point and Schalke ran out 2-0 victors.
Key player: Kevin-Prince Boateng
Boateng was still an AC Milan player when Schalke commenced their UEFA Champions League venture. However, with the German outfit short of an international-class forward in the absence of injured Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the Ghanaian international was summoned. The 26-year-old's arrival in Gelsenkirchen helped spark the side's early-season revival thanks to his skill, power and experience.
Rising star: Max Meyer
One member of Schalke's fledgling attacking midfield trident is 18-year-old Meyer. After bursting onto the Bundesliga scene towards the end of last term, the playmaker has made his mark in the UEFA Champions League this time around. He featured in all but one of the group stage fixtures and, along with the more established Julian Draxler and fellow emerging talent Leon Goretzka, is fast developing into one of continent's most coveted youngsters.
After coming fourth in the Bundesliga in 2012/13, Schalke were one of an unprecedented four German teams to proceed to the last 16 of Europe's premier club competition. The Royal Blues have got past the group stage on each of their last four attempts.
"I'm delighted with the draw and the two games against Real Madrid. It's a shame Sami Khedira won't be playing due to injury. It's going to be something new for me to play in the Bernabéu. Although Real will be absolute favourites, I think we've got an outside chance."
Schalke captain Benedikt Höwedes looks forward to his side's round of 16 tie.
Next challenge: Real Madrid CF
(Home: 26 February, away: 18 March)
As Group E runners-up, Schalke were always going to be up against an illustrious name in the last 16 and they come no bigger than Real Madrid. Though they will go into the tie as rank outsiders, Keller and company intend to make the most of the occasion, with the 43-year-old saying: "It's a fantastic challenge for our players to play against the most famous club in the world with players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Iker Casillas and Gareth Bale."