Schalke exploits Inter's defense

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It was all too much, even for the most partisan spectators. "No, no", said German SKY commentator Fritz von Thurn und Taxis, audibly exhausted, when Raul nearly scored a sixth goal for Schalke in the dying minutes in a stunning 5-2 win. "This defeat is too high," he added. "I'm sorry, but I need to come to terms with it myself first and have a cigarette now."

After the final whistle, the Schalke players were equally overwhelmed by the result. There was no jumping for joy, not much hugging, little cheering. They all seemed stunned, incapable of understanding the surreal nature of the events, wary of celebrating too much for fear that the "great football fairy tale" (Süddeutsche Zeitung) might turn out nothing more than a feverish dream. "They haven't quite grasped what happened here and just how big a win this was," one S04 official told reporters a little later, when the players were negotiating the mixed zone of the Giuseppe Meazza stadium with little emotion. "We will stick to water and apple juice," said keeper Manuel Neuer earnestly when asked about plans for party, "we have to concentrate on the game vs. Wolfsburg on Saturday."

"We haven't made the semifinal yet," cautioned coach Ralf Rangnick but his warning didn't sound that convincible. There was, however, little emotion in the 53-year-old's analysis. "I need to digest this game first," he pleaded, almost apologetically. It had all been too much, for him too.

How do you explain a result that seems to contradict all logic? Schalke, ranked 10th in the Bundesliga table, had felt that it might have an outsider's chance away to the Italian holders before the game, "we looked at their 3-0 defeat in the derby (against AC Milan last Saturday) and knew they were a little open", said Rangnick. But to score five goals after going down to Dejan Stankovic's wonder-strike from the halfway line 26 seconds into the game? To come back twice against an Italian side on its own turf and achieve a result unprecedented for German clubs against Serie A teams ? "Royal Blue football madness," Bild's take on the "magical night at the San Siro" (Welt), summed it up best.

The temptation is to look at this game mostly from Inter's point of view, to concentrate on its collapse rather than Schalke's performance. This was a shadow of the dogged, tactically brilliant and individually gifted side that won the Champions League under José Mourinho less than a year ago. Their fall from grace warrants a more thorough inquest but can probably be ascribed to two key factors. Tactically, coach's Leonardo naivety (or idealism, if you prefer a more positive slant) was reminiscent of that shown by Diego Maradona at the World Cup. Like Maradona's Argentina which was referred to as "a split team" by Germany manager Joachim Löw, Leonardo's Inter is a team in which attack and defense work almost independently of each other. It's a romantic, high-risk und ultimately untenable approach. "We saw that they were great going forward, but left plenty of gaps behind," said Rangnick, who was back coaching in the Champions League after six years.

A second, perhaps more damning indictment of Leonardo's tenure is the poor physical state of the players. Playing with one man down is never easy, but the Inter midfield's total inability to keep shape in the second half betrayed a worrying lack of fitness. Schalke striker Raul was being diplomatic when he ventured that Schalke had "certainly been better in football terms and in physical terms" after the break.

A team's failings still need to be exploited, however. Unlike Bayern Munich, who was wasteful in attack and disheveled at the back in its second round defeat against the Italians, a makeshift Schalke team without key personnel -- defender Christoph Metzelder and striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar were both injured -- held its nerve and seized the initiative. In only his second game in charge, Rangnick lined-up in a bold 4-4-2 system with Peruvian striker Jefferson Farfán as a wide midfielder on the right, the offensive-minded Alexander Baumjohann on the left and playmaker José Manuel Jurado as a second central midfielder alongside Kyriakos Papdopulous. To call these choices brave would be an understatement, and not just in tactical terms: Baumjohann, 24, a player banished to the reserves by former coach Felix Magath weeks ago, had never featured a Champions League match before. Up front, Brazilian striker Edu, 29, was also starting his first game at this level.

Crucially, Rangnick was also prepared to tweak his strategy, unlike the dogmatic Louis van Gaal who stuck with his ways until the bitter end in Munich. "In the second half, we moved Baumjohann back to play with a third man in front of the defense," Rangnick explained. "That was very important because we had conceded too many chances before and left too much space. As a coach, you like to have more balance. But this game could have also finished 8-4 or 10-5. I don't think it was ever boring."

Player by player, the two teams should have inhabited different planets, not the same pitch. Schalke's triumph, however, showed that individual deficits can still be overcome by collective endeavor and intelligence, even at this level. It's an uplifting message and timely reminder for those who routinely dismiss the Champions League as predictable.