Real Madrid slugs Schalke, eyes quarterfinal stage
MADRID -- Real Madrid became just the latest away side to all but book its Champions League quarterfinal place with a whopping 6-1 win in Wednesday's Champions League last 16 first leg at Schalke, and ensuring that Carlo Ancelotti's side are among the contenders to win the competition outright.
Madrid went into the game at the Veltins Arena as overwhelming favorites, but with slight doubts given its much-publicized record of just one win in 25 previous away games on German soil.
Such doubts soon looked pretty silly as Madrid's three-pronged strike force of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo each scored twice in a feast of fearsome finishing. Nobody was talking about the poor record in Germany any more, and everybody was instead looking ahead to May 24's final in Portugal -- with Madrid having confirmed it is a serious challenger to lift this year's trophy.
Schalke manager Jens Keller's starting XI had even started positively, winning a corner which lead to defender Benedickt Howedes heading just wide inside the first 60 seconds. Benedikt Howedes also made his mark early with a very, very late challenge on Ronaldo a few moments later.
But a Madrid side confident in its ability to soak up pressure did not flinch, and waited for the home fire to blow itself out. That did not take long. Ancelotti had started his first choice "tridente de gala" for the first time in seven games. And the Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo combination soon combined to put Madrid ahead before a quarter hour had even been played.
Bale linked with Ronaldo who tried to flick the ball back to the Welshman, only for home defender Felipe Santana to divert the ball straight to Benzema, who finished clinically first time from near the penalty spot.
The second was not long in coming, as Benzema nicked the ball from a dozing Santana and fed Bale, who zig-zagged between three defenders before pinging a shot to the net off the post from 15 yards. Replays suggested Santana might have got a touch on the ball, but it was hard to feel sorry for the Brazilian defender given his earlier haplessness.
Far from being cursed, Madrid had become the first away team to score twice in the first 20 minutes in a knockout Champions League game in Germany. An offensive approach by the home side that looked brave at the kickoff, now seemed foolhardy at best. The 2,000 visiting fans, possibly augmented by Madrid fans living in Germany, had "oles" already ringing around the 54,442 in attendance.
Clearly feeling left out of all the fun, Ronaldo had seven attempts in the first 45 minutes, but some more uncharacteristically wayward shooting and a string of saves from home keeper Ralf Fahrmann sent him to the break cursing his luck. A frustrated CR7 is a dangerous CR7 and the gloom lifted early in the second period, when Ronaldo did his bicycle step over to bamboozle Joel Matip and then jackhammer an unstoppable 15 yard shot across Fahrmann to the net.
That put the Portuguese back level with Paris Saint German's Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the top of the Champions League scorers charts this season, and made him the first player to score ten or more goals in three successive games in 58 years of European Cup history.
Madrid was not finished yet. Bale ran onto Sergio Ramos perfectly weighted pass to calmly finish first time past Fahrmann. Last summer's $130 million "galactico" is still not fully fit, but is now up to 14 goals in his limited playing time this season. When the Welshman came off for a well-earned rest, Madrid's latest attacking starlet Jese Rodriguez ran on eager to impress. Jese, 21, should probably have earned a penalty, only for English referee Howard Webb to perhaps feel sorry for the well-beaten German side.
The home fans did have something more positive to remember, when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar lashed a 25-yard volley to the net late on. The goal made little difference to the tie, but did end Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas' record without conceding in either the Champions League or the Copa del Rey at a phenomenal 952 minutes.
Ancelotti will not have been too worried about the late goal. This was a pretty sensational way to put that German curse to bed. And a pretty resounding statement of intent from Madrid, which is now 27 games unbeaten (closing in an all-time club record) and has won 16 of its last 17 matches. That's trophy winning form, and the one Blancos' fans really want is the long awaited tenth European Cup.
The result realistically makes March 18's second leg at Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu a non-event. But Ancelotti's Madrid have their sights set much, much further than that.