What should be a very defensive-minded Schalke 04 await Real Madrid in Gelsenkirchen. Los Blancos, who have Pepe back on their defensive line, haven't started 2015 in impressive fashion and will surely try to earn a convincing win in the same stadium that saw one of the best performances by an attacking trio last season, when Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema led Real Madrid to a shocking 1-6 away win.
It could be much different this time though, just as Ancelotti and Toni Kroos indicated during the pre-match press conference. Roberto Di Matteo is Schalke's new coach and he has implemented the same defensive style that allowed him to conquer the Champions League with Chelsea. The Miners are playing under a 5-3-2 formation that makes it very difficult for the opposition to attack with ease. However, they will be missing Julian Draxler, Leon Goretzka, Farfán and starting goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann. His replacement, Fabian Giefer, will also miss the match, meaning that 19-year-old Timon Wellenreuther will defend Schalke's goal. It would not be surprising if Real Madrid take advantage of his lack of experience by testing him from long-distance and in set pieces.
Real Madrid's injury report is quite busy as well. James, Ramos, Modric, Khedira and Coentrao will all miss the match, so Carlo Ancelotti will feel lucky to have Pepe back. The Varane-Nacho duo have completed some decent performances against Deportivo and Sevilla, but their soft physical presence was one of the keys behind Real Madrid's lackluster performance in the 4-0 loss to Atlético de Madrid. Schalke's strikers Huntelaar and Choupo-Moting could both be a tough physical challenge, so Pepe will be a much more appropriate defender to take care of them.
Ancelotti still needs to decide who is going to protect Kroos with. Illarramendi and Lucas Silva are fighting for one spot alongside the German midfielder, and it would be surprising to see the Brazilian getting his first start in European football in a crucial Champions League match. However, Asier Illarramendi has not made the best out of his playing chances, and his lack of confidence could tilt the scales in favor of Silva. Ancelotti will need to go over this very same decision until Luka Modric comes back from injury by the end of February-start of March.
Expect Real Madrid to control the tempo of the game and try to break through Schalke's defensive wall. If Pepe and Varane are successful on the air against Huntelaar and Choupo-Moting, Ancelotti's men should dominate the game. Nevertheless, it could take Los Blancos some time before finding the back of the net. If Bale, Ronaldo, Benzema and also Isco are inspired enough, Schalke won't stand a chance and Casillas will enjoy a comfortable game. It will all come down to Real Madrid's creativity on the final third.
Projected lineup: Casillas, Carvajal, Pepe, Varane, Marcelo, Kroos, Illarramendi, Isco, Bale, Ronaldo, Benzema.
Prediction: Schalke 0-2 Real Madrid