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Positives for Schalke despite latest Madrid reverse

No team is pleased with a 2-0 home loss but given the 6-1 reverse to Real Madrid CF last year there were plenty of positives for an FC Schalke 04 side moving in the right direction.

Schalke 0-2 Madrid: the story in photos ©AFP/Getty Images

Rarely is a defeat met with applause from the home crowd – especially in Gelsenkirchen – but it was clear the FC Schalke 04 faithful were satisfied with their team's performance long before the full-time whistle in Wednesday's 2-0 first-leg reverse against UEFA Champions League opponents Real Madrid CF.

Based on the result alone, many will consider the round of 16 tie to be as good as over, and they may well be right. Even so, set in contrast to the 6-1 hammering Schalke took at the same stage and against the same side last season, there were a number of positives for the German club to build on.

Sliced apart by the pace and incisiveness of Madrid's forward trio Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo in February 2014, Schalke were wiser to the dangers this time around. Showing a discipline which has been typical of their recent Bundesliga efforts, the Royal Blues' three-man central defence, bolstered by the winter addition of Serbian international Matija Nastasić and further shielded by a deep-lying defensive midfielder, congested the final third and offered the Whites scarce opportunity to run in behind. Forced to play around them, the Spanish Liga leaders struggled to penetrate until Ronaldo peeled away to head in Dani Carvajal's diagonal cross on 26 minutes.

Mixed feelings for coach Di Matteo

"We sat a lot deeper than last season," explained Joel Matip, who was bamboozled by the trickery and pace of Ronaldo 12 months ago but put in an assured display alongside captain Benedikt Höwedes in the sequel. For him, much of the credit must go to coach Roberto Di Matteo, who has worked hard to stabilise what had been an inconsistent Schalke back line following his October arrival. "We were better prepared this time," continued Matip.

And it was not just defensively where Schalke had improved. In the rare moments they did snatch the ball, they were courageous going forward. In-form forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting was clearly enjoying the opportunity to showcase his skills on the biggest stage and his fearlessness reflected in a team similarly inspired by the occasion.

In the first half it was Schalke's Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who came closest to breaking the deadlock before Ronaldo eventually did, and when the Dutchman hobbled off injured after 33 minutes it was his replacement who almost raised the roof. An unexpected UEFA Champions League debutant, 19-year-old Felix Platte was a fraction away from writing himself into Schalke folklore in the second period, only for his 74th-minute thunderbolt to come back off the underside of the crossbar.

Bale hails 'amazing' Marcelo goal

"We were a bit unlucky," said Matip. "If that shot from Felix had gone in, it might well have ended differently." Indeed, a 1-1 draw or even a 1-0 defeat would certainly have boosted slim hopes of any second-leg turnaround in Madrid. But where Schalke went close, Carlo Ancelotti's men delivered as Marcelo doubled their advantage late on with an unstoppable right-footed shot that fizzed just under the bar. "Sometimes it's those few centimetres that can make the difference," said the rueful Matip.

In that respect it was a deserved victory for Madrid and ultimately the end result is the same as last term – the holders have one foot in the quarter-finals and Schalke are more than likely facing another last-16 exit. Yet as Matip pointed out: "The fans know we're trying to build something here and they're right behind us." Both they and he know that progress is being made.