Schalke have pulled off a solid and surprising 5-2 win away at Champions League title holders Inter Milan to put one foot in the semifinals with the second-leg match still to come.
Raul hailed the victory as a 'wonderful day'
In football, there are good starts and then there are perfect starts. Inter Milan managed the latter in their quarterfinal clash with Germany's lone Champions League survivors, Schalke 04, in Milan on Tuesday night. But it wasn't enough to deliver the Italians a much-needed first leg win as they eventually went down 5-2 to a determined Schalke performance.
But it wasn't all smooth sailing for the Germans as the game kicked off with the spectacular Inter goal. Call it a freak pot-shot or a classy smash, but Dejan Stankovic's 51-meter crack after only 25 seconds won't be repeated anytime soon. The chance came after Schalke and Germany keeper Manuel Neuer rushed out of his box to head the ball clear of danger, only for it to fall to Stankovic near the halfway line. The big Serbia international hit a first-time volley that glided over Neuer and the Schalke defense and into the goal on the full: a moment of simple brilliance.
Any team could have been forgiven for going into their shells after such a horrendous start, but Schalke did quite the opposite. Football analyst Paul Chapman said the early goal sparked a surprisingly positive response from the Gelsenkirchen club.
"Before the game I described Schalke's chances of winning as minimal. When they went a goal behind after 25 seconds my forecast looked positively generous," he said. "But this Schalke team weren't fazed at all by that early setback, and before an hour had been played Schalke were totally dominating proceedings."
Just over 15 minutes after conceding, the Germans equalized from a goal-mouth scramble following a corner, with Joel Matip hammering the ball into the net from close range. The momentum of the match leveled out thereafter.
Edu scored two goals on the night
In the 34th minute, poor marking in the box led to Inter pushing a goal clear for a second time. Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder chipped cleverly over the Schalke defense from the edge of the box to find Argentine defensive midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, who headed back to his countryman Diego Milito, who had lost defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos and knocked the ball past Neuer from center-box.
But once again, Schalke refused to lie down, and from this point onwards it seemed a goal could have been scored at any moment by either team - a rather ideal back-and-forth, end-to-end encounter. Attacking opportunities came thick and fast, with neither team sacrificing front-men to reinforce the rearguard.
"This was a totally different kind of Schalke team, one that we haven't seen before," Chapman said. "We're all used to what [former coach] Felix Magath produced, this bit of magic. But [new coach] Ralf Rangnick, who I thought was a safety-first coach, really sent out a team designed tonight to take the game to Inter Milan."
And Schalke's attacking frame of mind paid off a second time in the 40th minute when Edu was put through on goal thanks to a nice ball from Champions League debutant Alexander Baumjohann. Edu fired on goal from the right but the shot took a deflection and Inter keeper Julio Cesar got a desperate hand to it to push it back into the path of the Brazilian, whose second lunge at the ball saw it sneak in for the second equalizer. And so the first half ended 2-2.
Schalke netted their first goal within 15 minutes
Two moments in the opening minutes of the second half proved pivotal for Schalke. The first came shortly after the restart when Neuer rushed Diego Milito, who had been put clear on goal, and did enough to put off the Argentinean so that his shot slid wide. The second moment came when Neuer's outstretched hand spectacularly tipped a goal-bound Samuel Eto'o shot away from danger. Had Inter scored on either occasion, the match would have surely taken a very different course.
From the outset, the second half looked as though it would mirror the first - that was until 10 minutes of madness, during which Inter's chances of coming away with a win crumbled. The phase began in the 53rd minute when Jefferson Farfan received the ball on the edge of the box and got a cheeky pass through to Spanish striker Raul, who swiveled and got around his defender to prod the ball past Cesar to take the lead, 3-2.
Four minutes later, Inter center back Andrea Ranocchia turned the ball into his own net for an own goal. To cap the swing in momentum, in the 53rd minute, Romanian defender Cristian Chivu earned his second yellow card in 10 minutes to receive his marching orders.
Edu's second goal and Schalke's fifth in the 74th minute was elementary as a clearly-dispirited Inter lost all control of the match and ceded possession to Schalke.
Paul Chapman singled out Neuer, Alexander Baumjohann and young Benedikt Höwedes as standouts for Schalke: "I think you have to pick out 23-year-old Höwedes, who took on the mantle of organizing the defense in the absence of [injured defender Christoph] Metzelder. I thought he was immense. But of course, they also had Manuel Neuer, arguably the world's best goalkeeper."
Both teams displayed fine attacking qualities throughout the match
Schalke in driver's seat
Ralf Rangnick hailed his team's "extraordinary performance," while Raul said it was a "wonderful day" and that he was "happy he could make his contribution."
Inter must now win by a four-goal margin in the return leg in Gelsenkirchen on April 13 to progress. The Italian club needs to come out firing from the opening whistle, while Schalke should have plenty of time and space. They will, however, be without the services and speed of Jefferson Farfan after the Peruvian received his fifth Champions League yellow card and will be suspended for the game.
In Tuesday night's other Champions League fixture, Spanish giants Real Madrid put in a solid performance at home to beat London club Tottenham 4-0 thanks to a brace from Emmanuel Adebayor and goals to Angel Di Maria and Christiano Ronaldo.
Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Sarah Harman