When Schalke fired Felix Magath earlier this week, they became the club all other UEFA Champions League quarterfinalists wanted to draw. Well, in truth, they were already the club everybody wanted to draw. They came out of a weak group and did not face a titan in the Round of 16. Combined with their poor showing in the Bundesliga, Schalke has the worst resumé of any of the tournament's final eight. And as if to trying to becoming the most dubious quarterfinalist in the current format's history, Schalke decided to fire their coach.
Leonardo has to feel blessed, getting the Royal Blues, though his good fortune dates back a few months. When Rafa Benítez ran this Inter team into the ground, the former Milan coach was the obvious choice for the Nerazzurri, who enticed him to cross the San Siro after the Rossoneri icon was cast way by Silvio Berlusconi. Milan used January to go out and get Giampaolo Pazzini (cup-tied) and Andrea Ranocchia, addressing the depth issues left from Benítez's M.A.S.H. unit. In Champions League, Leonardo's luck was set to run out until Louis van Gaal's ill-timed faith in Daniel van Buyten, Breno, and Danijel Pranjic created an opening exploited by Wesley Sneijder, Goran Pandev and (the player that probably should have been listed first) Samuel Eto'o.
But despite making the quarterfinals and pulling themselves to the edge of another scudetto, Inter is nowhere near the team that won last year's title. Yet Barcelona is still out there. Real Madrid is looming. Manchester Untied or Chelsea will meet them in the next round, should the Nerazzurri advance. Inter has a month to find last year's form, if they are to make a serious play at retaining their title.
And that's the true beauty of this draw. Inter doesn't need to be their best to eliminate Schalke, especially if the Blues fall apart post-Magath, Leonardo can use the next month to tweak ahead of the semifinals. No, they can't completely disregard Schalke, but the gap between the two sides allows them to find out if Diego Milito or Goran Pandev should be in Leonardo's choice XI. It allows the coach to see if Yuto Nagatomo should be the choice left back, and if so, where does that leave Javier Zanetti. It allows the partnership of Lucio and Ranocchia to further gel, and it allows Júlio César to find where the hell Júlio César went.
And even if Leonardo can't find answers to those questions, there's still Samuel Eto'o and Wesley Sneijder. Schalke's counter? Raul and Jurado.
Schalke finished first in a group that saw both Lyon and Benfica play below their standards. Benfica bared little resemblance to last year's juggernauts. Lyon was struggling at the bottom of Ligue Un. Despite Schalke also tempting relegation in Germany, they moved on.
In the Round of 16, the Blues gave two impressive performances against Valencia. A second half goal from Raúl got a 1-1 at the Mestalla, while Jefferson Farfán had two goals and an assist int he second, clinching leg.
Inter finished second to Tottenham in group play, earning them a tough Round of 16 match: a 2010 final rematch against Bayern Munich. After losing the first leg at the San Siro and being down 3-1 (aggregate) in the final half hour at the Allianz, Inter found two late goals to even the tie at three, advancing in away goals.
It's impossible to tell. We don't know much about Schalke, at this point. Ralf Rangnick would be wise to stay with Magath's system, but who knows? He might look at the Miners' personnel as see something completely different than what Magath built. With Schalke having yet to play since Magath was asked to move on, nothing but speculation informs our ... speculation.
April 5: Internazionale vs. Schalke, San Siro, Milan
April 12: Schalke vs. Internazionale, Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkirchen