Real Madrid eased past Schalke in Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday night, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring his 58th goal in as many UEFA Champions League games and Marcelo adding insurance to win out 2-0. To be clear, this was not a full-speed performance from the defending champions — which should make other challengers nervous. Schalke put in ferocious performance full of effort — and came away with little to show for it.
Schalke, who lost star striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to injury early in the first half, were not embarrassed here as they were last season, but Madrid’s away goals — and their overall dominance — will make it a difficult ask for the Germans to punch back in the return leg at Madrid.
Notoriously, Schalke were pounded in this same fixture last year, losing 6-1 in a record-setting match that saw Real Madrid become the first side to ever score six away goals in a knockout game. And, with young and relatively untested 19-year old keeper Timon Wellenreuther coming in after an injury to Fabian Giefer ruled Schalke’s number one out of the match, it did look as if the floodgates might open.
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Wellenreuther, who had only 225 minutes of Bundesliga experience under his belt at kickoff, did look nervous at the outset, and when Karim Benzema nearly slid the ball through his legs and into the back of the net, it seemed like Schalke’s worst fears might be realized. He, however, settled down and as Eric Choupo-Moting and Huntelaar started to gain purchase, it looked as if the Germans might get something on Wednesday night.
Huntelaar, in fact, forced the first save of the game, with Iker Casillas forced to dive to his left to parry away a hard shot from the top of the penalty area. But, after a collision with Raphael Varane, Huntelaar signaled he could not continue, and Felix Platte came in in his stead. There went Schalke’s hopes, as Real continued to build up the pressure.
Ronaldo would score with Huntelaar still limping about the field, on a complete defensive breakdown in the Schalke backline. Dani Carvajal was allowed time by Dennis Aogo to whip in a ball towards Ronaldo, who was left unmarked by Joel Matip. Under no pressure at all, he simply rose up and headed home.
After that, the wheels came off for Schalke, with Platte and Choupo-Moting frequently isolated and forlorn presences. Carvajal and Gareth Bale continued to attack down the near flank, whipping in ball after ball that Wellenreuther was lucky to see cut out by Matija Nastasic — or watch fly into his side net.
The second half settled into something of a training exercise, with Schalke looking content to lose by a goal, and Real perfectly willing to accept that. Chances were few and when they came, they were sloppy. Bale continued to harass out wide, but a hard-working Schalke side always had bodies back to clean up.
Platte grew into the match, becoming a more threatening presence, but too many forays forward were simply wasted. Kevin-Prince Boateng thought he’d be a hero and instead whipped the ball into the upper deck; Choupo-Moting and Aogo simply couldn’t move the ball quickly enough to break down the Madrid back four.
The game briefly flashed to life with fifteen minutes to play when Isco was gifted time and space with but the keeper to beat and lazily pulled his shot wide of the far top corner. That set off a scramble, with Platte nearly stealing a point for the Germans, with a fierce shot that came back off Casillas’ crossbar. Atsuto Uchida was following on, but his rebound was tame, and Casillas was able to gather.
But Marcelo would end any arguments with a stunning solo strike in the 79th minute. Set up with a square ball from Ronaldo, Marcelo took the ball on his supposedly weaker right foot, and ripped a shot left to right to the top corner with such force that the sound of the stanchions could be heard in the upper deck.