Time will tell whether or not Carlo Ancelotti can deliver on the promises that Jose Mourinho never met, but it's so far, so good for Real Madrid's new boss. They were stellar in the Champions League knockout stage, currently lead La Liga and have progressed to the final of the Copa del Rey. Ancelotti's team looks like it could be on its way toward a spectacular treble, but it has got a lot of work to do before it pulls off the continental phase of that feat.
Standing in their way in the first knockout stage are Schalke 04, who are just about the same team as they've been for the last six or seven years. Most of their potential superstars don't quite reach their potential and the ones that do get sold. When they make those sales, they bring in bargain players who weren't quite cutting it at their old teams who find themselves rejuvenated in Gelsenkirchen. It's a formula that has seen them stick in the Champions League, but has kept them from challenging Bayern Munich domestically. They've been bettered at their own game by hated rivals Borussia Dortmund, which stings quite a bit for their fans.
Another dismantling might be coming, but for now, Schalke still have all of their golden boys. Max Meyer is just starting to become a top pro, while Julian Draxler stuck around instead of leaving for Arsenal in January. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's stock has cooled, which is probably good news for Schalke. They might be losing Draxler and Benedikt Höwedes in the summer, but they're still on this year's team and present a challenge for Real Madrid.
Having said that, Madrid are huge favorites. Cristiano Ronaldo is fresh off a well-deserved Ballon d'Or and Gareth Bale has been as good as advertised during his first season in a different kind of white shirt. Ancelotti is also getting the most out of Luka Modrić, who was called the worst signing in Spain last season. This year, he looks like the country's best midfielder.
Sleeping on Schalke would be unwise, but it's clear that Madrid have the much better side. They're in excellent form and have a manager with an excellent track record in this competition. They should probably win this tie comfortably.
The injuries have piled up for Schalke. They'll be without Marco Höger, Christian Clemens, Atsudo Uchida and Jan Kirchhoff. Both Julian Draxler and Benedikt Höwedes are question marks, but it's likely that they've been saved for this game. If they're close to full fitness, there's a good chance that they're going to be risked.
Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo were suspended for domestic action on the weekend, but they're available for this game. Since they got a rest, they'll probably be inserted into the starting XI. Sami Khedira remains out with a knee injury, but otherwise, Los Merengues have a clean bill of health.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Schalke 04 (4-2-3-1): Ralf Fährmann; Sead Kolasinac, Benedikt Höwedes, Joël Matip, Tim Hoogland; Roman Neustädter, Kevin-Prince Boateng; Julian Draxler, Max Meyer, Jefferson Farfan; Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
Roman Neustädter vs. the mass of humanity around him - It's impossible to predict that Schalke will drop one of their attack-minded midfielders, insert a defensive-minded one and go to a midfield-clogging 4-3-3 simply because they've never done it, but they should probably consider it. Their normal double-pivot of Roman Neustädter and Kevin-Prince Boateng is very attacking, especially against a team like Real Madrid, who play a very attacking 4-3-3 with inside-out wingers.
Even perfection isn't going to do it for Neustädter. If Schalke stick with their normal setup, he'll need to be superhuman. Everything will be going on in the area of the pitch he occupies and Real Madrid are going to score more than once unless he's at his best.
Max Meyer vs. the stage - A day will come when Max Meyer is one of the biggest stars in German football, if not the entire world. He's been hyped as the country's biggest prospect since he started dominating Under-17 games in 2011, and the 18-year-old has met expectations so far. There's no doubt he's turning into a star, but this might be too big of a stage, too soon in his career. Keep an eye on him early. If his first touch is failing him, Schalke might be in for a long night.
Schalke are a good team who will have an excellent crowd behind them. Real Madrid are the best or second-best team on the planet. 2-1 to Real Madrid, setting up a relatively pointless second leg.