Gelsenkirchen, Germany : Real Madrid staked its claim as the main challenger to Bayern Munich's supremacy in Europe with a 6-1 rout of Schalke on Wednesday.
With its star forwards firing on all cylinders, Madrid outclassed Bayern's Bundesliga rival and only a miracle would now see the Spanish side fail to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
“Real and Bayern are the two best teams in the world,” Schalke coach Jens Keller said.
This could be Madrid's season.
The club is sitting alone atop La Liga for the first time since the 2011/12 season, when it won the title.
And the devastating display against Schalke underscored Madrid's ambition of taking Bayern's crown in the Champions League, where it is seeking an elusive 10th title after being eliminated in the semifinals the last three seasons.
Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo scored two goals apiece to tear apart Schalke and coach Carlo Ancelotti was full of praise for his team.
“We played a very, very good match,” Ancelotti said. “We got well into the match, scored two early goals and that opened the game and left us able to counter and to use the speed of our players.”
Goals from Benzema and Bale gave a Real a two-goal lead after 21 minutes, but in between Iker Casillas pulled off a stunning save from Julian Draxler. Jefferson Farfan sent a long cross that was slightly deflected and Draxler pounced from three meters, only to see Casillas react with an amazing reflex stop.
“It was an incredible save, maybe the crucial moment of the match,” Ancelotti said. “It protected our lead.”
And that from the ‘keeper who has slipped down the pecking order. Casillas only plays in the Champions League, while in the Spanish Liga, Diego Lopez takes his place.
After that, Schalke rarely threatened, although Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's volley in stoppage time was the most spectacular of all seven goals on the night.
Madrid's individual class was never in doubt but the side now also plays with a newly found team spirit and seems to have a lot of fun on the pitch—although that may be the easy part when a team is winning comfortably.
Benzema got the scoring going in the 13th. Bale played the ball to Ronaldo, who used his backheel to pass it through to Benzema to find the net.
The second came after a mistake by defender Felipe Santana who lost the ball to Benzema, although he had plenty of time to clear. Benzema fed it to Bale, who dribbled
past three defenders before finding the left corner of Ralf Faehrmann's goal.
“That was Bale's best game of the season,” Ancelotti said of the world's most expensive player.
Ronaldo hit the post in the first half and had some clear chances thwarted by Faehrmann.
But Ronaldo finally scored in the 52nd, before each of the trio scored again.
Ronaldo and Benzema traded passes and waltzed through Schalke's defense before Ronaldo fed the France striker with another backheel. Benzema raced past two defenders and rounded the keeper to score easily in the 57th.
Schalke then lost the ball in midfield in the 69th minute and Sergio Ramos sent Bale through, leaving the forward to slot the ball past Faehrmann and inside the far post.
Ronaldo scored his second by rounding Faehrmann after collecting a pass from Benzema in the 89th.
It was that kind of night for Real—entertaining dribbles, powerful shooting, clever passing, a performance that had everyone at the stadium in awe.
“The difference in class was clear,” Schalke's Draxler said. “We can forget about the second leg and concentrate on the Bundesliga.”
Defender Benedikt Hoewedes said every mistake was punished, “and we made too many mistakes. Real was a class better.”
Madrid's victory ended the team's poor run in Germany—of its previous 25 matches there, the Spanish giants had won only one, a 3-2 success in 2000 at Bayer Leverkusen.
The Spanish league leader is unbeaten in 27 games—its best run since 1988/89 when it went a record 34 games unbeaten.
Ronaldo now has a competition-high 11 goals this season and 61 goals in 98 Champions League matches, third behind Raul Gonzalez (71) and Lionel Messi (66).
In the other last-16 match on Wednesday, Chelsea earned a 1-1 draw at Galatasaray.