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Schalke hope to avoid another rout against Real

By AP - Feb 17,2015 - Last updated at Feb 17,2015

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale taught Schalke a lesson when Real Madrid visited Schalke at the same Round of 16 stage in the Champions League last season. One year later, Schalke hope they have learned enough to avoid another rout when they meet again on Wednesday.

The three Real stars produced a stunning attacking performance and scored a pair of goals apiece as Real romped to 6-1 win in Gelsenkirchen and later completed a 9-2 victory on aggregate.

Real Madrid went on to win their elusive 10th title and are seeking to become the first team to retain the Champions League trophy. 

Lesson learned? 

Schalke are not the same team one year later, starting with coach Roberto Di Matteo. The Italian replaced Jens Keller in October and has shored up the team’s defence.

“We learned from our defeat last year. But we have also improved, we are a different team now,” said Di Matteo, who won the Champions League in charge of Chelsea in 2012.

During the winter break, Schalke added central defender Matija Nastasic on loan from Manchester City. The team are in fourth place and in competition to reach the Champions League again.

In another boost, goalkeeper Fabian Giefer has returned to training and Di Matteo probably won’t have to rely on 19-year-old Timon Wellenreuther.

Finding the target

In defence, Schalke look solid. But they have struggled to convert their chances, especially since striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar started serving a four-match ban.

But the Dutchman is available for the Champions League and is expected to return against Real. He scored Schalke’s only goal at home against Real last season and it was a spectacular volley.

How much Schalke miss Huntelaar was evident in Saturday’s 1-0 loss at Eintracht Frankfurt. Schalke dominated the first half, missed several good chances and then fell victim to an opportunistic second-half goal.

Ronaldo struggling

Schalke are not the only one struggling to score — Cristiano Ronaldo has been held scoreless in Real’s last three matches, the first time he has gone through such a slump since February 2011.

Ronaldo only has four goals in his last 10 matches, while the Ballon d’Or winner scored 17 in his first 11 league matches. 

Pepe to the rescue? 

Real Madrid’s dip in form since the start of 2015 coincides with a spate of injuries to their midfield and defence.

The titleholders have lost James Rodriguez (broken right foot), Luka Modric (left leg), Sergio Ramos (left leg), Pepe (ribs) and Fabio Coentrao (right leg).

But media reports say the club hopes Pepe will be back fit to play in Germany.

If not, then coach Carlo Ancelotti will again be left to rely on young center backs Raphael Varane and Nacho Fernandez, a far from equal pair to Ramos and Pepe. The two were helpless to stop Atletico Madrid from dealing Madrid its worst loss since 2010 in a 4-0 thrashing two weeks ago.

German connection

Toni Kroos immediately became a first-choice player for Ancelotti following his move from Bayern Munich last summer.

Since then, Kroos has seen both midfield partners Modric and Rodriguez go down with injury, as well as the transformation of Francisco “Isco” Alarcon into a Madrid fan favourite.

But the weight of both helping out in defence and organising the attack falls on the German.

“Playing in the centre of midfield is difficult. You have to be versatile, good with and without the ball, defend well, start attacks and be strong in the challenges. It is a tough position to play in and I am trying to overcome my weaknesses,” Kroos said.

Kroos insists Madrid have to respect a Schalke side that many in Spain see as a pushover.

“Schalke are enjoying success in the Bundesliga and with their new manager have become very solid in defence,” he said.  

41 years ago 

Basel and Porto meet in the Champions League on Wednesday with both aiming for a rare run to the quarter-finals.

Two-time European champion Porto reached the elite eight just once since winning the title in 2004. Basel’s only quarter-final appearance was 41 years ago.

Two coaches in their debut Champions League seasons also offer a fresh look to clubs seeking to step up from being group-stage regulars.

Here are some things to know about the only last-16 series not to feature a team from the big three Champions League nations of Spain, England and Germany:

Home comforts 

Basel likely need to make home advantage count Wednesday, after making St. Jakob-Park a difficult place to visit for European football’s biggest names.

Bayern Munich were beaten 1-0 in the first leg of Basel’s only recent last-16 appearance three seasons ago, which ended after a 7-0 rout in the return in Germany.

Basel has also sent past winners Chelsea and Liverpool home with losses since a 2-1 win over Manchester United in December 2011 showed how the perennial Swiss champion had matured on the biggest stage.

Unbeaten run

Porto joined select company with their unbeaten run through the group stage: only Real Madrid — which topped Basel’s group — and Chelsea also avoided losing in their six-match pool.

Porto’s 16-goal tally was also just one fewer than Chelsea’s competition-leading 17. Colombia forward Jackson Martinez scored five times and Yacine Brahimi four.

Brahimi was recruited after impressing at the World Cup with Algeria.

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