Madrid conceded four goals in the capital for the first time in 15 years. Let that sink in for a moment. After taking some abuse for what some (this writer included) felt was a troubling, lackluster performance in Bilbao, Cristiano Ronaldo responded, as champions do, with two huge goals in the first half that gave Real a foothold in a contest Schalke was bossing with startling ease. Both were against the run of play, but after today that will be forgotten in line with the old American sports cliche: They don't ask how.
Schalke entered the Bernabeu fearlessly determined to attack, and attack they did. In what was a continuation of two troubling trends that began in earnest during the Athletic match, Real started slow and were completely vulnerable in the midfield. Schalke dominated the center of the pitch from whistle to whistle, finding wide open swathes of space and completely blowing by Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira as if they were traffic cones. Real's vulnerability there was exploited mercilessly by Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Christian Fuchs and the 19-year old Max Meyer. It was Fuchs who opened the scoring, firing a shot that was misplayed by Iker Casillas before caroming into Real's net.
Ronaldo answered minutes later with a towering header from a corner that exploited lax marking at the far post. Huntelaar scored the first of his two on the night in the 40th minute to make it 2-1 Schalke. Then right before the break Cristiano scored the most pivotal goal of the tie. With everything going Schalke's way, the tireless Isco slid a nice ball to Fabio Coentrao who picked CR7 out with a beautiful looping cross to equalize.
Early in the second, Karim Benzema erupted from the grip of a mostly tepid performance to slalom through Schalke's backline and score a goal that appeared to put the tie completely out of reach. Schalke never stopped playing and a few minutes later tied the score at 3 on a piece of individual brilliance by Leroy Sane. On level terms again the Germans found another gear, overwhelming the hapless Khedira until he was replaced by Luka Modric.
A true sight for sore eyes, the Croatian immediately slowed down the tempo and added a level of equilibrium to Real's shape and psychology. Then Huntelaar popped up again, screaming down the center of the pitch and splitting Raphael Varane and Pepe like a wishbone before ripping a shot past Casillas. After performing in rock-solid harmony against Athletic, the center-backs took a step backwards today, but in no way should they be singled out as most Madrid players were subpar on the evening. Huntelaar's goal made it 4-3 and gave the Germans even more belief as they torridly sought a historic goal that would have plunged Real into a titanic crisis. Thankfully, it was not to be and Casillas made a couple of big plays in the waning minutes.
The Ghost of Gareth Bale roamed the pitch, looking at times fearful of actually collecting the ball. Alvaro Arbeloa was victimized time and again down the right flank, adding even more woe to the Welshman's struggles. There very well may be blood in the water. But for at least an evening Madridistas can be consoled with the fact that the team is through and the dream lives on.