Madrid out to banish German hoodoo in UCL

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

"It isn't a good or bad draw," said Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti, acting quickly to play down the favourites tag his Blancos side will carry into their Champions League last 16 tie against Schalke.

The draw for the business end of the competition took place on Monday and, although you'd expect nothing less than the Italian respecting his his side's forthcoming opponents, the truth is it could have been worse for Madrid as they continue their search for La Decima.

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Premier League duo Arsenal and Manchester City were the ones to avoid, and avoid Madrid did. Instead, City will take on Barcelona for the first time in a competitive match while Arsenal are up against another of Europe's big hitters in current holders Bayern Munich. Madrid's task of progressing will not be straightforward against Schalke, but Ancelotti and Madrid would probably have taken that had they been offered it before the draw.

As well as Arsenal and City, Madrid could have faced Italian giants AC Milan in what would be a match-up for the football traditionalists, although Milan are struggling domestically. Bayer Leverkusen, second in the Bundesliga behind Bayern, were also a possible match-up. Ties against Olympiacos and Zenit would arguably have been Madrid's most comfortable route through to the quarterfinals but it is Schlake that await.

As with City and Barca, Madrid has never faced Schalke in a competitive match, although they won't have to look far for the inside story on a side with plenty of Champions League experience and that sits sixth in the Bundesliga. The clubs have a warm relationship thanks to Madrid legend Raul's stint in Germany and Los Blancos will no doubt go to their former goal hero for some advice.

Jens Keller's men are not exactly setting the Bundesliga alight this season but they have one of Europe's hottest prospects in Julian Draxler and plenty of knock-out experience throughout the squad. The star names present in the competitions other remaining teams may not light up Schalke but they will provide stubborn opposition for Madrid, especially with the first match being on German soil.

While Madrid has yet to record a competitive result against Schalke, their record in Germany is poor. Only one win has come in their past 23 matches on German soil, that being a 3-2 victory over Bayer Leverkusen all the way back in 2000. Defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich respectively also have seen Madrid crash out of the competition in the past two seasons.

As professional footballers, and managers, you'd expect that record to be put firmly to the back of their minds when Los Blancos visit the Veltins-Arena, but that's easier said than done -- just look at Saturday's result against Osasuna in La Liga. Madrid had won just one of their past five visits to Pamplona before the weekend match but, despite welcoming Cristiano Ronaldo back to the starting lineup and seemingly firing on all cylinders, the capital club once again struggled against a side now firmly planted as the Blancos' bogey side. These things are hard to shake off.

Keller, who is under pressure to improve results, says his side is "really looking forward" to the match, while star man Draxler says the match "is a real Champions League highlight." The Germans know Madrid will arrive as favourites to progress and it seems they are looking forward to playing underdogs. The pressure won't be heavy on their shoulders, and they know it will be on their opponents'.

Big domestic matches also surround the last-16 tie, with Madrid following the first leg with a trip to face city rivals Atletico before El Clasico at the Bernabeu follows Schalke's visit to the Spanish capital. Ancelotti has arguably the strongest squad in world football at his disposal, so much sorrow will not be forthcoming, though the schedule is not ideal.

At this stage of the competition progression for any side should not be straightforward, but Madrid can look forward to the first match, which takes place on Feb. 26 at the Veltins-Arena, knowing that it could definitely have been worse. Just ask Barca.

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