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What happened at the San Siro last night was more of a circus act than a football match - one with an overabundance of clowns, a little bit of tactical juggling, and some courageous lions - although they didn’t need to roar particularly loud to get their opponents cowering into submission. Schalke romped to a historic 5-2 victory as Inter struggled to cope with their energy and industry, but the result could easily have been quite different.
Schalke’s line-up had goals written all over it, but the absence of defensive stalwart Christoph Metzelder - out with a broken nose - indicated it might not be the Königsblauen doing the scoring. Into his place in the centre of defence came nineteen-year-old Joel Matip, usually happier as a defensive midfielder.
Schalke like to line up with what Germans call a doppelsechs – a double-six - two defensive midfielders tidying up in front of the defence. With Peer Kluge out injured, Matip dropping back to defence and Ivan Rakitic and Jermain Jones short-sightedly let go by the since-dismissed Felix Magath in January, it was time for the coach Ralf Rangnick to gamble.
In slotted the usually attack-minded Jose Manuel Jurado alongside Kyriakos Papadopoulos (also only nineteen years of age), and when Inter’s midfield enforcer Dejan Stankovic was hauled off due to injury after twenty-four minutes, the die was cast.
Before last night, Schalke had attempted the fewest passes (3098 - less than half of Barcelona's 6464) of all the teams remaining in the Champions League - and only 75% of them had been successful, another competition low. The only place you’d be likely to see fewer passes would be a nunnery – at least until the slick Spaniard Jurado was given the freedom of the San Siro.
This Schalke side sensed the weakness in the Lucio-less Inter defence, and having been left reeling by Dejan Stankovic’s incredible long-range opener with less than a minute on the clock, had no choice but to go for the jugular (or juggler, if one were to further labour the circus metaphor from the opening paragraph…)
Matip’s equaliser was a deserved reward for the Germans’ positive response to that early blow. The visitors then peppered the Inter box with early crosses that were all dealt with, albeit with foreshadowing of the defensive ineptitude that was to come.
After Milito’s well worked goal, Edu barged his way through on goal with barely a challenge from a black and blue shirt to level the scores again at 2-2 going into the break, during which time the only prediction that felt safe was that there would be more goals.
If Stankovic’s early withdrawal was one turning point, the five minutes that immediately followed were another. Milito shot wide when clean through, and Neuer pulled off an excellent stop to deny Samuel Eto’o. Luck is a bucking bronco at times, but Schalke were riding it excellently.
Jurado was revelling in Inter’s inability to combat Schalke’s unexpectedly attack-minded formation, pulling the strings in the centre of the park. Such bafflement must stem from a fundamental lack of preparation and an arrogant underestimation of the opposition, for which Inter coach Leonardo must take the blame. As must Andrea Ranocchia, who left Raul in space for Schalke’s third, and scored the fourth himself, knocking Jurado’s low cross into his own net.
Schalke continued running riot after Cristian Chivu’s red card, Edu turning at the edge of the box and hammering home the fifth before Jurado hit the base of the post from long range.
But blame is easier to assign than credit. Raul, the old master, never stopped running. Papadopolous was disciplined in his defensive midfield role, often dropping back to create a back five and strangling the Inter attacks. His passing was occasionally poor, but was compensated by Jurado’s precision.
Farfan was wily, as always, but was booked and his trickery will be missed for a return leg in which Schalke will surely find themselves under the cosh. Alex Baumjohann didn’t in any way resemble a player that, two months ago, was playing in the German fourth tier with the Schalke reserves, and repaid Rangnick’s faith in him with an assist for Edu’s first. He might need to work on his dancing skills though...
Logic, and Ralf Rangnick’s tendencies, would indicate that we’ll see a more cautious Schalke in the return leg in a week’s time, although with Inter needing to spend a lot of time at the drawing board over the coming days, the wounded beast could be there for the taking once more.
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