Champions League: Real Madrid survives; Porto coasts to quarters
Real Madrid and FC Porto became the first teams to qualify for the 2015 Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday, doing so in completely different ways. Madrid advanced despite a stunning 4-3 loss at home to Schalke, advancing 5-4 on aggregate, while Porto thrashed Basel, 4-0.
Schalke began on the front foot in Spain, twice taking the lead in the first half only to be knocked back by two headed goals from Cristiano Ronaldo. The Germans began the match two goals down after their home game last month but put in a gutsy performance against a sputtering Madrid.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Portugal, Jackson Martinez-less Porto scored on two direct free kicks to go past Basel after a 1-1 first-leg draw in Switzerland. Algerian international Yacine Brahimi put one home from short range before Casemiro unleashed a long rocket in the second half. The two sandwiched a stellar strike from Mexican international Hector Herrera, and Vincent Aboubakar sealed the result with a final tally.
Here are a few observations from a raucous day of action:
Player of the Day: Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid
In a performance reminiscent of his hat trick against Sweden in the qualification playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, Ronaldo scored both of his team’s first-half goals, helping stem the tide and right the ship in what ultimately was a 4-3 loss.
Zlatan Ibrahimović may not have been on the other side this time, but Schalke managed to remain dangerous all match. Christian Fuchs overlapped from left wingback to impact multiple Schalke attacks, and Max Meyer drove through Madrid’s midfield at will.
Schalke outplayed Real at the Santiago Bernabéu as a collective, and with that it meant Real Madrid needed a special performance from an astounding player to still doom the German club. That's what Ronaldo provided.
In setting more goalscoring records, Ronaldo again reminded modern observers of their good fortune to have two once-in-a-generation players competing at the same time in Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
They trade defining performances multiple times a season in Spain and draw comparisons even when their teams compete separately in the same competitions.
While Fuchs, Meyer and fellow double goalscorer Klaas-Jan Huntelaar showed Schalke's intent for an upset, and Brahimi, Herrera and Casemiro, a Madrid loanee, produced highlight-reel goals, Ronaldo put his team’s fate in his hands and led it through to another stage of the competition. Barely.
Moment of the Day: Ronaldo's first-half double
Five minutes after his team went down a goal, looking much the worse group at home against Schalke, Ronaldo equalized for Real Madrid. He outmaneuvered Joel Matip in the penalty area, jumping to head home off a corner kick.
With the goal, Ronaldo passed Messi and fellow club great Raúl at the top of the all-time goalscoring chart in European club competitions. In the short-term picture, it also energized his team.
Instead of preening for the fans seated around the field, Ronaldo ran toward the home bench and visibly admonished Real for its lackluster start to the match. In the 31st minute, he picked up a yellow card after stretching on a tackle and catching too much of his opponent, the Ballon d'Or winner's passion overflowing.
Huntelaar gave Schalke the lead again with five minutes to go before halftime as Madrid fell asleep again, but Ronaldo struck again before the whistle, heading home Fabio Coentrao's cross. The second goal was his 78th in all European competitions and tied Lionel Messi’s record of 75 Champions League goals.
Despite a poor team performance from Real, Ronaldo came through to drag Madrid into the Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday. As the best players often do, he played his best when his team needed it the most.
Major Takeaway of the Day: Navas should get his chance in Madrid
Another player Real needed to play well did not, and not for the first time. Spanish goalkeeping legend Iker Casillas still wears the captain's armband and will always have his five league and three Champions League titles with the club, but his recent performances have been those of a player in decline.
It started last year, when manager Carlo Ancelotti rotated him with Diego López, leading to a series of inconsistent performances in Europe and with Spain at the World Cup. His play continues to slip, while a capable stand-in remains on the bench in Costa Rican Keylor Navas.
Navas put in one of the World Cup's best goalkeeping performances, earning a transfer to Real.
His quality became apparent across the Spanish leagues with Albacete and Levante, and he hasn’t made any mistakes in his brief minutes to unsettle Real teammates or fans.
Casillas’ leadership qualities remain vital for the club, but part of a goalkeeper’s leadership has to be through the example he sets. He must give the players in front of him confidence and organize the back line. Madrid’s defense played catastrophically against a dynamic Schalke attack, and both goals conceded in the first half should have been prevented.
Casillas knocked Fuchs’ shot into the goal for the opener when it came right at his hands. Then, he parried Meyer's tame shot right into Huntelaar’s path for an easy tap-in. In league play, Casillas’ technique has been uncharacteristically shaky.
With two simple saves in the first half on Tuesday and an important one on Benedikt Howedes deep into second-half stoppage time, discussion should be of a crisis in Madrid, but one of a hard-fought victory with a bit more difficulty than expected. At some point, though, that has to weigh on the manager’s mind just as much as Casillas’ leadership abilities.
Assessing Real Madrid, Porto as deep-run candidates
Porto plays in a lesser league but still looks somewhat like this season’s Atlético Madrid, a well-coached team unafraid of any challenge. Julen Lopetegui’s team scored an important away goal in Basel before its four-goal outburst at the Estádio do Dragão and is one of just two unbeaten teams–Chelsea being the other–in this season's champions league.
Missing starting center back Iván Marcano won’t help Porto’s chances to start strongly in the next round, though, and a much less stable defense than Atlético’s could be a major liability. Meanwhile, Madrid should only fear an implosion or total collapse reducing its chances to beat anybody.
Real might be slipping in league play and nearly threw away a two-goal lead against Schalke, but the talent on the squad makes it impossible to sell the club short as a contender to repeat. With Luka Modrić’s return on Tuesday for the first time since November, a shaky midfield also got stronger.
Porto’s possible fortune rests somewhat on the draw, while Madrid should still be favored against any team besides perhaps Bayern Munich or Barcelona.