Ronaldo, Marcelo guide Real Madrid; Porto has edge in Champions League
All four teams in Champions League action on Wednesday ensured the slow, methodical start of the previous day would not carry over. An early goal in Switzerland kicked off the 1-1 draw between Basel and Porto, and positive approaches from Real Madrid and Schalke teams in Germany eventually gave way to a 2-0 win for the defending champion.
Porto started the livelier of the two teams at St. Jakob-Park, and scoring in the 11th minute only exacerbated Basel’s low initial approach. The home team conceded possession and played on the counterattack well until scoring, at which point it fell into a defensive shell for the rest of the game.
In Gelsenkirchen, Schalke’s immense home support was evident throughout the game, jeering Real’s long spells of possession and reserving an extra dose of hate for Cristiano Ronaldo. The Ballon d’Or winner responded with his first goal in four games to give Madrid the lead before halftime, putting his hands to his ears mockingly in his celebration.
From that point, Madrid controlled the match and played much more freely, unburdened by the specter of failing to score. Real, which won in the Champions League for the 10th straight game, also continued its streak of being the only team not to concede in the second half of Champions League matches this season.
Here is what else stood out from Wednesday's action:
Player of the Day: Tomáš Vaclík, FC Basel
For the second time in two days, a team secured a result against the run of play with major help from its goalkeeper. Rising Czech Tomáš Vaclík made one save of note against Porto, at full extension to his left on Danilo's powerful shot just after Basel’s goal, but he organized his team well as it faced constant pressure.
Danilo did eventually score, on a well-taken second-half penalty that Vaclík had no real chance to save.
Porto finished the match with 15 shots, six of which Vaclík saved, and launched 27 crosses toward goal.
Vaclík played a major part in the greater defensive performance by Basel, which held firmly at the back despite not having many attacking opportunities other than the goal. The back four held its shape well and absorbed constant pressure — due in part to Vaclík’s organization, range off his line and ability to play the ball with his feet in attack and defense.
Moment of the Day: Platte hits the bar, Marcelo responds
Schalke hardly threatened to score on Wednesday, besides 19-year-old substitute forward Felix Platte’s strike against Iker Casillas’ crossbar in the second half. Casillas jumped up and tapped the bar in appreciation as he clutched the rebound gratefully, recognizing it as the moment of luck any winning team needs in its quest to advance.
The magnitude of that moment became clear five minutes later on the other end, as Marcelo cut inside and smacked a shot into the upper right-hand corner of Schalke's goal with his weaker foot. With Marcelo suspended against Atlético in league play, Real lost 4-0 on Feb. 7, and his influence in attack was again apparent in this match.
The Brazilian left back has been a terror for opponents all season, running down the left flank to provide width as Ronaldo prefers to stay more central. His incessant work rate makes him difficult to get past on the other end of the field, while his creativity, speed and technique make him a threat moving forward.
His goal on Wednesday, his team's second, should basically close out this matchup already, as Madrid almost never loses at home.
Major Takeaway of the Day: Ronaldo’s ‘crisis of form’ is over
When a player scores as many goals as Ronaldo did in 2014, going three games without one seems strange. It hardly qualifies as a drought by most standards, but combined with the flak from Madrid fans for images of his birthday party that surfaced hours after the 4-0 loss to rival Atlético Madrid, not much has seemed to go his way since claiming the Ballon d’Or.
It took him just 26 minutes to change the general tune surrounding him in a game where Ronaldo received plenty of negative attention from both the opposing players and fans, who kicked and jeered him at every opportunity. Somehow unmarked in the middle of Schalke’s three center backs, he rose to power home his first-half header.
Ronaldo’s momentum picked up as the first half progressed. Schalke’s 19-year-old goalkeeper Timon Wellenreuther extended to his right to parry a powerful free kick 10 minutes after the goal. In the second half, his influence waned as Madrid settled for the win, but he was still around the ball and goal often, drawing close attention from opponents, and he split a pair of defenders before assisting on Marcelo's wonderstrike.
After playing a major role in Real’s first-leg win, Ronaldo’s supposed slump is over. Still, just as Real’s fleeting poor form as a team was brief and relatively inconsequential, it was never drastic enough to warrant the hyperbolic reaction it received.
As a bonus, Ronaldo now sits just two behind Lionel Messi on the all-time Champions League goalscoring chart, at least until Barcelona plays Manchester City next week.
How the Second Legs Shape Up
Both away teams should feel good about their showings on the road, but Madrid sits in a slightly more comfortable position than Porto heading into the second leg on March 10. Real hasn’t lost a Champions League match at the Santiago Bernabéu since the first leg of the 2011 semifinals, a 2-0 loss to eventual champion Barcelona.
Heading to Spain, Schalke will be the team that needs luck on its side if it is to have a chance at breaking Real’s home dominance. It would take a repeat of that 2011 result or worse for Madrid to lose now.
In the other matchup, Porto will be looking for justice after its dominance against its Swiss opponents nearly led to no end product in the first leg. With its creative attacking ability, Porto peppered the Basel goal all match, just needing a sharper finishing touch or, again, a bit more luck to go home with a lead.
If the second leg progresses similarly, with the away goal in Porto’s pocket and Basel’s limp attack, the 1-1 result would be enough for the Portuguese team to win on the tiebreaker. But after Porto's outburst without any goals through the run of play on Wednesday, a win seems the likeliest result.