Schalke are set to host giants Real Madrid in the Champions League Round of 16. Could the Bundesliga's surprise in-form side of 2014 pull off "a miracle" upset against the giants of world football?
The undoubted underdogs in Wednesday night's fixture at the Veltins Arena are Schalke, and coach Jens Keller knows it, but that hasn't stopped him from hoping for a result. The Royal Blues are undefeated thus far in 2014 and are in their best form of the season. There's never been a better time to take on the mighty Real Madrid.
"After Bayern, Real Madrid are maybe the second-best team in the world at the moment. They have extraordinary players in every position so it won't be an easy game," Keller said at a press conference ahead of Wednesday's match. "But we are the home team and must be brave; we will not hide. To be successful, everybody will have to be at 100 percent. Only then might it be possible to pull off a miracle."
"A miracle" is what Schalke will need to defeat the nine-time European champions and current La Liga leaders. But if Keller is going to pull off what many view as the impossible, he might just have the tools to do it.
Injured no more
Crucially for Schalke, their injury troubles appear to be behind them. The return of striker Klaas Jan-Huntelaar to the lineup has been invaluable. Schalke are undefeated thus far in 2014, and only an over-performing Mainz side have been able to hold them to one point and a shutout since the Bundesliga resumed.
In that match, Schalke's number one starlet Julian Draxler marked his return to the side from injury. The 20-year-old is the team's leading scorer in the Champions League this year, and the opportunity to finally play together again with Huntelaar and Jefferson Farfan in the attack should have Madrid worried.
Also set to mark his return is defender and captain Benedikt Höwedes. Felipe Santana and Joel Matip have proved a reliable center back pairing in his absence, meaning he's most likely to shift over to right back.
In the first half of the season Schalke's defense was reliably inconsistent, but 2014 has been something different entirely. Keller's side has conceded fewer goals (2) and earned more points (13) than any team in the Bundesliga since the season resumed except for the impenetrable Bayern Munich.
"Real Madrid have an incredible team but we're not bad either," Keller said. "We're in very good shape, as you can see from our recent results."
The tie – the first ever meeting between Schalke and Real Madrid in European competition – has striker Raul's allegiances. The Spaniard spent 16 seasons at the Bernabeu before moving to Gelsenkirchen in 2010. He spent two years at the German club, leading them to the Champions League semifinals and German Cup title in 2011.
"I'm enjoying the comfortable position of being able to cheer on both teams," he diplomatically told the Schalke club magazine.
Schalke are the final German side to play their opening Round of 16 fixture when they kick off at 8:45 p.m. local time (19:45 UTC) on Wednesday night. Bayern defeated 10-man Arsenal last week 2-0 in London, while Bayer Leverkusen were embarrassed 4-0 at home by Paris Saint Germain. Borussia Dortmund made the biggest splash in the Champion's League knockout stage thus far with a 4-2 win over Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia.
Chelsea travel to Galatasaray in Wednesday's other match.