Schalke did well to overcome Basel and book passage into the knockout rounds of the Champions League, but unless they come up with a miracle, Real Madrid represent the end of the line
Schalke's progression to the next round -- along with the three other German sides in the competition -- has prompted suggestions that this 'proves' the strength of the Bundesliga, but the reality is that Jens Keller's side benefitted from a weak group - the winners, Chelsea, lost twice to Basel yet still finished first, and it was a red card to the Swiss side in the final match which gave Schalke the upper hand for a victory they required to qualify from the group.
Instead, much of their season has been dominated by the difficulties finding balance and harmony, a task made difficult by the unexpected and somewhat unnecessary arrival of Kevin Prince-Boateng in the transfer window. On paper, the Ghanian gave Schalke some much needed depth in attacking midfield, but on the basis of first team selection, it's complicated things - it's meant Julian Draxler's had to shift out into a wide left position, where he's far less effective and seemingly unhappy, going off his comments in Kicker magazine this week.
Keller's constantly experimenting with different formats of the attacking trident of his 4-2-3-1, sometimes opting for a fluid trio of Draxler, Max Meyer and Jefferson Farfan behind Boateng, moved forward into a centre forward role, but that hasn't quite worked -- but neither has the use of Draxler out wide, and it's difficult to see where Keller can find a compromise.
Defensively, there are also issues -- put simply, 28 goals conceded in the league, the sixth worst, is hardly ideal for a side with greater ambitions beyond sixth place (where they currently are). It would be no surprise if, like last season, they had a difficult coach for the knockout phase than the group stage - although, with no chance of drawing a side like Galatasaray as they did in 2012, it's difficult to see how a managerial change can help them progress.
Key player: Julian Draxler
On paper, and going off their positions this season, you might think the expensive Boateng would be the key player, but Draxler is the younger, more talented and more exciting playmaker. He's excellent at finding space and while can slip in clever passes between the lines, is actually a better goalscorer than given credit for, able to dart forwards into penalty box positions unmarked. The baby-faced German is drawing the attention of Chelsea and Manchester United, but rather than being a fish in a big pond, you feel Draxler might benefit more from simply being the main man, given positional freedom in a central attacking role -- an idea that Keller, or a new coach, might come round to by February next year.
Real Madrid are supposed to be in the knockout stages of the Champions League. It’s expected, it’s demanded, their payroll and transfer expenditures scream of their desire to not only be successful domestically but on the European stage as well. There’s also the underlying drive of history. No team has won the European Cup/UCL more than Madrid -- nine times -- and while AC Milan is the next closest with seven, Los Blancos badly want to be the first team to win 10.
The group stages did not pose much trouble for Carlo Ancelotti’s team. Madrid were the only side in Group B without a loss and had locked up the top spot with time to spare. The only blemish on their record was a 2-2 draw away against Juventus, but it didn’t stop them from having the best goal differential of any team in the group stage (+15) and one of two teams with 16 points. All in all, it was an impressive performance.
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Madrid are of course led by the one and only Cristiano Ronaldo. The man scores goals like the Hamburger steals hamburgers and still has time to sell underwear and start social networks. Ronaldo scored nine goals in the group stages -- making him the current top scorer in this season’s tournament -- including three multi-goal matches. If not for an injury keeping out of the second meeting with Galatasaray, he’s probably be in double digits. While the rest of the Madrid attack is dangerous, they’ll need Ronaldo at his best if they want their tenth title.
Key Matchup: Hildebrand vs. Ronaldo
Schalke goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand will be tested time and time again by Cristiano Ronaldo -- his defence isn't going to help much -- and unless he's at his very best he's going to be picking the ball out of the back of his net more than once. But a heroic performance from the veteran goalkeeper could well be the key to Schalke pulling off a miracle.