A five-goal gap kills the sugarcoating. There are no clichés in the arsenal to make Real Madrid’s Tuesday visit from Schalke an important game. The managers aren’t even trying. Carlo Ancelotti’s opening discussing resting players. Jens Keller is discussing playing for pride. Nobody’s under any illusions about the 6-1 lead Real Madrid takes into Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League match at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Three weeks ago, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo each bagged two in Gelsenkirchen, with only a spectacular volley from 19 yards out by Klass-Jan Huntelaar giving the Royal Blues a reprieve. Even memories of the strike, as technically perfect as it was, have been almost entirely buried. Schalke fans don’t want to remember leg one. Real Madrid fans are ready for the quarterfinals.
All of which makes Tuesday’s second leg a small nuisance – a game neither team really wants to play. Fans showing up at the Bernabeú tomorrow night are likely to see a series of great young talents, with Jesé, Álvaro Morata, and Isco all set to start. But this is Champions League. This the knockout round. As domestic races hit their home stretches and cup competitions reach their final stages, Europe’s commitments aren’t supposed to be so meaningless. It’s enough to ask why the game’s even happening, let alone why we should watch it.
We know why it’s happening (there’s no mercy rule in Champions Legaue). Why we should watch, however, takes more imagination. Jesé, the 21-year-old attacker who tore up last summer’s U-20 World Cup, is worth it on his own. Watching him try to blow by Schalke defenders is worth two hours of your time. Álvaro Morata, also 21, will provide another glimpse of Real Madrid’s enviable cadre of young attackers, while Isco (yes, 21) gets a chance to rejoin the starting XI. Though the likes of Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, Tuesday will give fans a glimpse of Real Madrid’s future alternate present.
“Real Madrid and Bayern München are the strongest teams in the world,” Keller said. “We must be realistic – Real Madrid are an amazing team and when you lose 6-1 in the first leg it is not easy to reach the quarter-finals.”
Unfortunately for Schalke fans, that team may still be better than the XI Keller will choose in Madrid, especially since Cristiano Ronaldo is slated to start. When he comes off, Gareth Bale may come on (Benzema, however, has a bad thigh). Ahead of Sunday’s visit from Barcelona — a game that could end Barça’s title defense — Ancelotti has to balance rest with a desire to keep his team sharp. This weekend, however, will be his obvious priority.
“We will make some changes because some players are physically tired,” Ancelotti said on Monday. Thoguh the team carries a 30-match unbeaten run into Tuesday’s game, the Real Madrid boss is intent on resting his stars. “The Málaga match was tough and we had to travel.”
It only adds to the meaningless quality of the game. Given the opportunity, Real Madrid would rather concentrate on Sunday. And Schalke would rather stay in Gelsenkirchen then travel for 90 perfunctory minutes in Madrid. Unless you’re a hardcore Madridistra or can’t get enough of the team’s battalion of young attackers, Chelsea versus Galatasaray is the game for you.