COMMENT: Carlo Ancelotti's side came close to a humiliating exit against a side they dispatched 9-2 on aggregate last season. On this form, they are unlikely to retain their titleBy Ben Hayward at the Santiago Bernabeu This was a chance to right recent wrongs. Real Madrid had a point to prove following their defeat at Athletic Club in La Liga on Saturday and had vowed to react after their poor performances of late. But instead, they looked more vulnerable than ever.
Schalke shocked the champions by taking the lead after a scrappy start from Carlo Ancelotti's men - something all too common in the last few weeks - and went ahead again after Cristiano Ronaldo had headed an equaliser. And even when Karim Benzema made it 3-2, still the German team came back and they almost did the unthinkable as they went 4-3 up in the dying minutes and pushed for another which would have won them the tie.
The Bernabeu crowd met the final whistle with tangible relief, but plenty of jeers for their team too. This was not the side that conquered Europe last season, nor the one expected to build an era-defining team under Ancelotti. This was simply not good enough.
Casillas could have done better with the first goal and the shot stuck straight at him by Christian Fuchs that he could only help into the corner. And the Madrid captain was caught out again as he parried Max Meyer's drive into the path of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for Schalke's second.
Another Ronaldo header and a fine finish from Benzema restored relative calm, but chaos returned and Casillas was at fault for a third time, failing to react as Leroy Sane curled home from outside the box for 3-3.
In front of Casillas, Madrid missed the organisation of the injured Sergio Ramos. Raphael Varane and Pepe were guilty of poor positioning and chaotic co-ordination as they allowed the Schalke forwards time and space to attack at wiill. Varane was prone to lapses in concentration and careless passes at the back, while Pepe was caught ball-watching and looked off the pace as the German side scored a late fourth.
That goal originated from a rare Luka Modric mistake as the Croat's intended intervention inadvertently set up Huntelaar, although the former Real striker still had to find his way between three Madrid defenders to latch onto the loose ball and beat Casillas with a thunderous drive.
That error aside, Modric gave Madrid much more composure and slicker circulation of the ball in midfield, something Ancelotti had been complaining about after the loss at Athletic at the weekend.
On Sunday against Levante, Ramos may be back too, while James Rodriguez is also on the mend. Those three have been badly missed but even when they are back, Madrid will need to do far better than this to have any hope of defending the crown they won in Lisbon last May.
Ancelotti said on Monday that he hoped Madrid would bounce back to build confidence ahead of the Clasico clash against Barcelona on March 22, but playing like this, nobody will be scared of the Italian's side.
"There is little to say," the Italian admitted afterwards. "We are experiencing an obvious dip in form and with an attitude like that, we won't go very far. We played badly and it's not good for our image or the image of this club. The jeers are totally deserved."
But the 55-year-old added: "I have spoken to the players and we want to do a lot better than that. Things change quickly in football - in December we were on a high after winning 22 games in a row. Now we are at a low but the fans' jeers can wake us up."
Despite the defeat and the poor performance on Tuesday, Los Blancos remain alive in Europe and live to fight another day, just as they did after losing 2-0 to Dortmund in last year's quarter-final and almost crashing out of the competition altogether. This was worse, however - a loss at home with four goals conceded against a side currently lying fifth in the Bundesliga table.
To have any hope of winning the Clasico or progressing further in the Champions League, such performances must be confined to the past. For Ancelotti, there is plenty of work to be done - starting with the defence.