Can Schalke upset holders Real Madrid?

Real Madrid CF made short work of FC Schalke 04 in the round of 16 last year, but according to match reporter Andy James the tie is likely to be a lot closer this time round.

Schalke reflect on the end of their European campaign last season
Schalke reflect on the end of their European campaign last season ©Getty Images

When Karl-Heinz Riedle opened the miniature ball at the UEFA Champions League round of 16 draw in December to reveal Real Madrid CF as FC Schalke 04's opponents for the second season running, the former Borussia Dortmund forward was not the only German to crack a wry smile.

After their 9-2 aggregate crushing by the eventual winners at the same stage last term, most were assuming it would once again signal a last-16 swansong for the Royal Blues. However, much has changed in Gelsenkirchen since that emphatic defeat and the consensus has tentatively shifted from resignation to hope as Schalke prepare for the holders.

Last season
After a decent opening from Schalke in the Stadion Gelsenkirchen first leg, Madrid's class soon shone through and by half-time the hosts were nursing a 2-0 deficit. The Merengues' fearsome attacking triumvirate of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo completed doubles in the second period and, though Klaas-Jan Huntelaar struck a spectacular consolation, the Whites were rampant and deserved 6-1 winners.

Joel Matip tracks Gareth Bale during the second leg
Joel Matip tracks Gareth Bale during the second leg©Getty Images

With the tie as good as settled, the Spanish giants made changes for the second leg and, despite being pegged back by a surprise Tim Hoogland goal at the Santiago Bernabéu, Carlo Ancelotti's men breezed through to the quarter-finals as Ronaldo's brace and an Álvaro Morata effort made it 3-1 on the night, 9-2 on aggregate.

Positives
A mere reminder of that resounding reverse would be enough to send a shiver down the spine of any Schalke player ahead of Wednesday's sequel, but, believe it or not, there were a few positives from last year's tie which the Bundesliga outfit can look to for encouragement.

Firstly, the Stadion Gelsenkirchen crowd were phenomenal. Enthused by the prospect of seeing Madrid's star names in action, the home faithful rose to the occasion and roared their side on from start to finish – even at 6-0 down.

They almost inspired an unlikely lead too – had captain Benedikt Höwedes found the target as opposed to heading narrowly wide from an early corner, things may well have transpired differently. There were further chances in both legs and Schalke at least proved they can score at home and away against the Liga leaders.

What's changed?
The most obvious alteration at Schalke from last season is the coach. Roberto Di Matteo succeeded Jens Keller in October and, following an inconsistent start, has guided the Royal Blues back into Germany's top four, coming in for plenty of recent praise for his team's defensive organisation.

Add to that the emergence of summer signing Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting as a potent and variable attacker, as well as the winter arrival of Manchester City FC defender Matija Nastasić, and Schalke possess an improved squad with several key members still to return from injury.

The coach
Di Matteo received a lukewarm reception from fans on his appointment, with many thinking the Italian would offer little in the way of fresh ideas. They have since been pleasantly surprised, with Schalke developing into a compact, organised defensive unit.

2012: Roberto Di Matteo lifts the trophy in Munich
2012: Roberto Di Matteo lifts the trophy in Munich©Getty Images

Further reason to dream is provided by Di Matteo's UEFA Champions League pedigree. Not only has he caused a major upset in this competition before – he has won it. It was the Swiss-born tactician who masterminded Chelsea FC's triumph in the 2012 edition, outfoxing perceived superior opposition in the semi-finals against FC Barcelona and then in the final, turning the tables on FC Bayern München in their own back yard.

Tactics
After switching to a back three in November, Di Matteo's Schalke suffered just one Bundesliga loss in six heading into the winter break and, having had a training camp in Qatar to fine-tune further, they have emerged stronger still in 2015.

Three centre-backs, shielded by a deep-lying defensive midfielder, are complemented by two charging wing-backs, all of whom make it claustrophobic for opposing attackers as soon as possession is lost.

And in recent Bundesliga matches Schalke have virtually handed possession to their opponents, allowing VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach as much as 70% in their 6 February meeting but keeping a clean sheet and snatching a 1-0 win. Madrid will post similar passing stats but must guard against a false sense of dominance, as Schalke soak up the pressure and await their opportunity to counter.

Personnel
Bringing further steel to Schalke's defensive block is Nastasić, who joined on loan from Manchester City with the option to make the move permanent. The Serbian international's acquisition was heralded as a real coup for the Miners and his displays have further stabilised an already solid back line.

At the other end of the pitch, Choupo-Moting has proved a revelation since landing from 1. FSV Mainz 05 prior to the campaign, scoring nine goals in the Bundesliga and a vital winner in the 4-3 matchday three success against Sporting Clube de Portugal. Huntelaar, meanwhile, has been serving a long-term suspension in the Bundesliga and will be chomping at the bit to return to action against his old club.

Matija Nastasić has strengthened Schalke's defence
Matija Nastasić has strengthened Schalke's defence©AFP/Getty Images

Sead Kolašinac, Leon Goretzka, Jefferson Farfán and Julian Draxler are also nearing returns from injury and could figure over the two legs. With Madrid hampered by injuries to the likes of Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Sami Khedira and James Rodríguez to name but a few, it could be a rare chance to take advantage.

Form
Schalke go into the first leg on the back of a 1-0 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt. However, as captain Höwedes said post match, the team delivered a respectable away performance and kept it tight for the most part, ultimately being caught out by a deflected cross and a moment's hesitancy from young goalkeeper Timon Wellenreuther. Otherwise, the Royal Blues have looked watertight, posting 1-0 victories against Hannover 96 and Gladbach and, perhaps most promisingly, holding the usually imperious Bayern to a 1-1 draw.

Conclusion
Based on Schalke's defensively sound showings, another 6-1 drubbing seems considerably less likely, even if the German side remain rank outsiders. Di Matteo will relish the chance to prove himself against the continent's best once again, focusing on keeping a clean sheet for as long as possible and hoping to nick a goal at the other end. No easy task against the ten-time winners' illustrious forward line, but by no means impossible.

Top