German club Schalke 04 picked up a valuable 1-1 draw with Spanish team Valencia in their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first-leg clash on Tuesday night.
Schalke, currently 10th in the Bundesliga, struggled to create opportunities and can thank the inability of their Spanish opponents to make the most of their chances - both self-made and gifted - for the outcome.
It took just 17 minutes for Valencia to score the opener and it seemed for a while the Spaniards might net once or twice more. But a second-half goal from veteran Schalke striker Raul, who was making his first return to Spain since signing from Real Madrid in the off-season, pulled the western Germans back from the brink of defeat.
Valencia coach Unai Emery began the game with a 4-3-3 formation spearheaded by Roberto Soldado, Aritz Aduriz and Alejandro Dominguez, while Schalke's Felix Magath opted for a 4-4-2 formation, with Raul sitting just behind Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in attack.
Aduriz and Soldado got the game started and it wasn't long before Valencia pushed the ball up to the Schalke goal box. This early foray forward was a sign of how the first half would roll as the Spaniards played with that confidence that often comes with a home field advantage.
Despite this, the first clear-cut chance of the game fell to Schalke in the eighth minute, but Huntelaar scuffed his lines and miscued directly in front of goal with only keeper Vicenta Guaita to beat.
Schalke were made to pay for the miss within less than 10 minutes when defender Christoph Metzelder cheaply gave possession away deep in Schalke's defensive territory on the 16-minute mark. The ball was quickly shifted to the left touchline, where a well-weighted, short through-ball was played to a flying Jeremy Mathieu, whose cross found Soldado. He had managed to lose his man on his run into the box and got a neat touch on the ball to deflect it between Manuel Neuer and the near post.
It was Soldado's sixth goal in the competition as he moved a goal behind the competition's top scorer Samuel Eto'o of Inter Milan.
The movement exposed Schalke's defensive unpreparedness on the counter but also highlighted the Spaniards' ability to shift the ball quickly and capitalize on errors.
To their credit, Schalke remained calm after conceding and continued trying to break through Valencia's midfield. In the 25th minute, midfielder Peer Kluge came close when his lollypop header meters out from goal almost floated over Guaita, but the keeper got an outstretched fingertip to push it onto the corner of post and crossbar and out for a corner.
Schalke lacking fluidity
It would be a stretch to say Valencia were dominating by this point, but their pace and creativity down the flanks repeatedly exposed a Schalke defense that at times looked laggard and uninspired.
Schalke, meanwhile, had trouble playing useable and threatening balls from the midfield through for Huntelaar and Raul, who were struggling to get into the game. Both frontmen repeatedly received possession far from the goal box and with several defenders to beat.
As the game progressed, Schalke seemed to be playing like a team that didn't believe it could win in Spain. And perhaps this betrayed Magath's plan to aim for an away draw, or at the very least a low-scoring loss.
Both teams started the second half without replacements and both came out firing, though it was again Valencia who looked more dangerous. It took only a few minutes for the Spaniards to pressure the Schalke goal thanks to defensive errors which gifted easy balls in the box.
A wayward Metzelder header landed at the feet of midfielder Tino Costa who dribbled into the box and fired a dangerous, grounded shot across the face of goal which narrowly slipped past the far post. Valencia continued to menace their opponent's goal time and again, with the Germans' defense struggling to pick up the simple diagonal and cross-field runs of the Valencia offense.
But as can so often happen in football, just as it looked as though Valencia would make the most of the ascendency, their increasingly overwhelmed opponents struck in a moment of weakness.
The goal came in the 64th minute against the run of play when a sprinting Raul received a firm ball from Jose Manuel Jurado on the left inside the box. Raul managed a soft, controlling touch that attested his experience, steered the ball around his marker, defender David Navarro, and fired a low left-foot shot past Guaita and into the bottom right-hand corner of goal.
The goal makes Raul the all-time top scorer in Champions League history. It was an instant of lethality in front of goal that took Valencia by surprise and threw the doors of the game wide open again.
Coach Emery quickly brought on fresh legs in Joaquin and Vicente in an effort to reassert Valencia's dominance in midfield, but play had already begun to even out by then. A few glancing opportunities fell both teams' way, but neither were able to make the most of them before referee Aleksei Nikolaev blew fulltime.
Football analyst Paul Chapman said the standout theme of the game was that both teams struggled defensively.
"We had two shaky defenses, not only the Schalke defense," he told Deutsche Welle. "We had two good goalkeepers, and it was the mistakes which kept the game interesting, and, overall, a very good result for Schalke."
He said Schalke "played themselves into the game, the longer the game went on," but criticized defender Christoph Metzelder for his schoolboy error which led to Valencia's goal.
"Even a lowly amateur player would realize when playing football in a situation like that to just belt the ball upfield. He tried to play his way through a wall of players," he said.
Chapman said the result left the tie wide open, with both teams now heading to Gelsenkirchen in March for the second leg.
"The good thing from Schalke's point of view is they're not particularly strong going forward - they haven't got a lot of pace - and the good thing is, initially, is they can sit back. If they don't concede a goal it means Valencia have to come at them more and more and leave gaps at the back."
After the game, Manuel Neuer complimented his teammates on the hard-fought win. "We did not play an outstanding game, but we got a good result. It was important that we came back and also that Raul had this flash of brilliance."
"We have asserted ourselves and can be happy with our performance," said midfielder Lukas Schmitz, who received a second yellow card in the dying moments of the game.
Soldado, meanwhile, said Valencia still believed they could advance, despite now needing to score in next month's second-leg game.
In Tuesday night's other Champions League match, British club Tottenham came away with a surprise 1-0 win at AC Milan.
Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Holly Fox