Real Madrid’s humbling loss makes them more vulnerable than ever

MADRID —

This was a chance to right recent wrongs.

Real Madrid had a point to prove following its defeat at Athletic Club in La Liga on Saturday and had vowed to react after its poor performances of late. But instead, Los Blancos looked more vulnerable than ever after falling to Schalke in its UEFA Champions League second leg match on Tuesday night.

The German side shocked the champions by taking the lead after a scrappy start from Carlo Ancelotti’s men — something all too common in the last few weeks — and went ahead again after Cristiano Ronaldo had headed home an equalizer. Even when Karim Benzema made it 3-2, the German team came back and almost did the unthinkable — going up 4-3 in the dying minutes and pushed for another that would have won the series.

The Bernabeu crowd met the final whistle with tangible relief, but plenty of jeers for the home team too. This was not the side that conquered Europe last season, nor the one expected to build an era-defining team under Ancelotti. This was simply not good enough.

"We suffered a lot until the final minute, right until the end," Ancelotti told reporters following Real Madrid’s loss on Tuesday night. "The game did not go as we wanted. Anything could have happened. We have had problems, in all aspects of the game, attack and defense, fight, concentration, motivation. It was pretty clear.

UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL

Casillas could have done better with the first goal and the shot stuck straight at him by Christian Fuchs that he could only help into the corner. And the Madrid captain was caught out again as he parried Max Meyer’s drive into the path of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for Schalke’s second. Another Ronaldo header and a fine finish from Benzema restored relative calm, but chaos returned and Casillas was at fault for a third time, failing to react as Leroy Sane curled home from outside the box for 3-3.

In front of Casillas, Madrid missed the organization of the injured Sergio Ramos. Raphael Varane and Pepe were guilty of poor positioning and chaotic coordination as they allowed the Schalke forwards time and space to attack at wiill. Varane was prone to lapses in concentration and careless passes at the back, while Pepe was caught ball-watching and looked off the pace as the German side scored a late fourth.

That goal originated from a rare Luka Modric mistake as the Croat’s intended intervention inadvertently set up Huntelaar, although the former Real striker still had to find his way between three Madrid defenders to latch onto the loose ball and beat Casillas with a thunderous drive. That error aside, Modric gave Madrid much more composure and slicker circulation of the ball in midfield — something Ancelotti had been complaining about after the loss at Athletic over the weekend.

"We must say it clear, we are playing very badly," Ancelotti said. "It is pretty hard to understand, after what we did up to December. It is not easy to explain, above all we have lost some confidence in our play, in our identity, above all that."

HEAR US OUT

Ramos may be back Sunday against Levante, while James Rodriguez also is on the mend. Those two have been badly missed, but even when they are back, Madrid will need to do far better than this to have any hope of defending the crown it won in Lisbon in May. Ancelotti said Monday that he hoped Madrid would bounce back to build confidence ahead of the Clasico clash against Barcelona on March 22. But playing like this, Madrid will scare nobody.

Nevertheless, Los Blancos remain alive in Europe and live to fight another day, just as they did after losing 2-0 to Dortmund in last year’s quarterfinal and almost crashing out of the competition altogether. This was worse, however — a home defeat with four goals conceded against a side currently lying fifth in the Bundesliga table.

"We must think about tomorrow, we cannot look back, nor dwell on the 22 successive wins [earlier in the season] or anything else we have achieved," an upbeat Casillas told reporters. "But the positive is that we will be in the draw next Friday. When that draw is made we will forget what has happened over the past 10 days — they have been dramatic.

To have any hope of winning El Clasico or progressing further in the Champions League, such performances must be confined to the past. For Ancelotti, there is plenty of work to be done — starting with the defense.

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