Real Madrid made to sweat by never-say-die Schalke but shock averted

Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti apologises to fans after defeat to Schalke.

Real Madrid are through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. That is not news; what is news is that they genuinely feared they might not be. With six minutes to go Schalke found themselves within a goal of completing an extraordinary turn-around. The Germans won 4-3 at the Santiago Bernabéu, a result that was enough to end a 10-match winning run for Madrid but not ultimately to end their defence of the European Cup. Carry on like this, though, and they will not last much longer.

At the final whistle Cristiano Ronaldo, scorer of two goals, departed shaking his head. It had been a crazy game. It was not supposed to be this way; it was supposed to be easy. Madrid had won 2-0 in Germany and their opponents had not impressed. The idea they might be beaten was never entertained, still less the idea they might be eliminated. The former happened, the latter almost did. Schalke were superb, tearing into Madrid, terrifying them.

The fear first crystallised in the 19th minute. Fed by Max Meyer, Tranquillo Barnetta found space where space was easy to find – on Schalke’s right, Madrid’s left – and from there delivered a ball across the penalty area. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting let it pass them near the penalty spot and it ran on to Christian Fuchs who took one touch before shooting. It was not a great shot but it met weak wrists. The ball went off Iker Casillas’s hands and into the corner.

The finish may have been fortuitous but the lead was not. Schalke had first advanced up the right as early as the second minute, only for Marco Höger to send over a dreadful cross; Choupo-Moting side-footed over a few minutes later and then a neat move, again on the right, ended with a shot straight at Casillas and a raised flag. Soon afterwards Raphaël Varane hacked one away to a soundtrack of nervous whistles and Toni Kroos intervened just ahead of Huntelaar.

Then Meyer rushed through from the halfway line, reaching the penalty area where his shot was screwed horribly wide. Then, and only then, did they score. It would be the first of four.

Ronaldo arrived to put out the fire with a header from a corner but the flames still licked up round Madrid. A poor back-pass almost gave Schalke the lead again, the stadium still as the ball squirmed slowly towards the far post after Huntelaar had closed down Casillas’ attempted clearance. The Dutchman then thumped one off the crossbar before scoring the second in the very next minute.

Casillas made the save this time, from Meyer, but he could only spill the ball into the path of Huntelaar who struck high into the net. Schalke were dominating. Madrid were unable to press, unable to play. Every ball into the box was a heart attack, elimination had become a very real possibility. Ronaldo arrived again just before half-time to head his eighth goal in eight games. A perfect cross was misjudged by Timon Wellenreuther and Ronaldo leapt to head in.

Some tranquillity had arrived and it increased seven minutes into the second half. Coentrão nudged the ball through to Karim Benzema, lurking in an offside position. He cut inside horizontally from the left, drifted away from a couple of challenges and rolled the ball home.

Still Schalke did not give in. If nothing else because they were enjoying this game for its own sake. Even if they went out, which they had always expected to do, there was satisfaction in playing this way in the Santiago Bernabéu. Four minutes later the 19-year-old Leroy Sané, who had come on for his first Champions League game when Choupo-Moting had been forced off half an hour in, curled in a gorgeous left-footed shot.

The target was back to two goals, just as it had been at the start of the game. Back then it appeared impossible. Now it just felt improbable.

But then improbable sums this game up. Time ticked away and, with Luka Modric finally introduced on the hour after a four-month absence through injury, Madrid gained a little control. Yet with six minutes to go a loose ball fell to Huntelaar and he crashed a shot in off the bar. Schalke were 4-3 up and only a goal away now. A minute later Sané curled a shot towards the far post which Casillas had to dive full length to tip past the post.

Casillas made another save, this time from Benedikt Höwedes. Schalke came forward and the whistles grew in intensity. The Madrid fans had spent much of the night whistling their players; now they frantically whistled the referee, imploring him to do the same.

When at last he did, there was relief for the European champions. They had survived. Somehow.