Real Madrid look ahead with their quarterfinals ticket already in hand
Madrid — We already know who is going to progress from Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg between Real Madrid and Schalke 04 at the Santiago Bernabeu (live, FOX Soccer 2, 3 p.m. ET). But the game could demonstrate what many in the Spanish capital increasingly maintain that this Madrid has the attacking power and squad depth to go on and win the competition outright.
Madrid destroyed Schalke 6-1 in Gelsenkirchen three weeks ago, and neither team is expecting a turnaround in the return. Blancos coach Carlo Ancelotti, with one eye on next Sunday’s Clasico against third place Barcelona, has already decided to rest key players, including Gareth Bale and Xabi Alonso, against Schalke.
"We are going to make some changes because we have had a game with a lot of physical effort," Ancelotti told his pre-match press conference on Monday. "We have traveled, and we have not rested much. To allow a good recovery for all the players we will make some changes."
The Italian coach even revealed that Spain U-21 trio Alvaro Morata, Jese Rodriguez and Isco will all start. Other squad players to feature include Asier Illarramendi, Nacho Fernandez and Fabio Coentrao, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas providing the experience to ensure nothing disastrous occurs.
Ancelotti denied he was disrespecting either Schalke or the tournament by playing such an apparently weakened side.
"This is a Champions League game, very important, we must continue the team’s good moment," he said. "We are looking to play a similar game to the first leg. We respect the competition, our own work, and the opposition team."
But still even Schalke knows its Champions League campaign is almost over. Jens Kellerâs young side took an adventurous attacking approach in the first leg, and even forced goalkeeper Casillas into an excellent flying save at 1-0. But it eventually paid dearly for such naivety as the Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema each scored twice in what was a real thrashing.
Schalke’s pain increased just three days later when it was beaten 5-1 by German champions elect Bayern Munich. But since then it has managed to steady the ship, with its own 4-0 thrashing of Hoffenheim, and then a comeback 2-1 win at Augsburg last Friday which kept it in third spot in the Bundesliga table.
Maintaining that position, and qualifying for next season’s tournament, now appears more important to the club than attempting the impossible on Tuesday at the Santiago Bernabeu. "I hope that nobody will hurt themselves in Madrid and then miss the game next weekend against Braunschweig," Schalke’s sporting director Horst Heldt says.
This means Keller could leave stars like Kevin-Prince Boateng and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar on the bench, even though Huntelaar would no doubt like a chance to impress back at the ground where he scored eight goals during a short six month spell in 2009.
The Miner’s exciting young midfielder Julian Draxler, who only showed glimpses of his potential in the first leg, outlined the extent of his side’s ambitions for the game.
"All footballers want to play at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu," Draxler said. "Our situation is comical. We are realistic enough to know that after a 1-6 we do not have many options. Nevertheless, we want to play a good game."
Madrid’s ambitions go much further. Ancelotti’s side has scored 26 goals in its first seven Champions League games this term, with Ronaldo claiming 11 on his own in just six outings. Meanwhile, rotating goalkeepers Diego Lopez and Iker Casillas have conceded just six goals in 18 games so far in 2014. Madrid remain unbeaten in their last 30 games in all competitions, three points clear atop La Liga, into the Copa del Rey final. The real buzz in recent weeks around the Bernabeu, however, has been about the long awaited tenth European Cup triumph.
Even with Bayern in such devastating form, Barcelona still able to up their performances in big games, and former coach Jose Mourinho still lurking in the competition with Chelsea, the feeling is growing around the Bernabeu that this could be the year "La Decima" arrives. Ancelotti was asked on Monday if this current Madrid squad was the very best he had managed.
"I have had squads with a lot of quality," the former Juventus, Milan, Chelsea and Paris Saint Germain boss admitted. "This one has something of everything — youth, experience, character, personality. It could be the most complete I have had."
That strength in depth will be on display against Schalke. And then as Madrid go deeper into the tournament injuries and suspensions will surely mean some mainstays miss out against top-class opposition. Ancelotti’s talented kids can show on Tuesday that they’re ready to step in and play their part.