Madrid - It's not often 9-2 aggregate defeats in the UEFA Champions League are described as positive and courageous, but in that respect FC Schalke 04 are breaking away from the norm.

Despite suffering a 3-1 last-16 second-leg loss at Real Madrid CF's imposing Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday night, the Royal Blues came away feeling strangely satisfied having restored a modicum of pride following their 6-1 first leg humbling three weeks earlier.

'Very impressive'

"Although we lost 3-1, it was a special performance from us," enthused Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. "We played so much better than in the first leg, but the final score clearly showed who the better team was over the two matches. After the first leg it was clear our chances of success in Madrid were slim, but we gave a much better account of ourselves than we did three weeks ago."

Schalke's heartening response to such a heavy defeat at the Veltins Arena was all the more impressive given the young blood - Max Meyer and Kaan Ayhan to name but two of the youngsters handed a starting berth - seeping through the Royal Blue veins in the Spanish capital. "It was great to start with eight players who have come through the Schalke ranks," explained midfielder Roman Neustädter. "That's a positive sign for the future. Now we have to put the Champions League behind us and concentrate on the league."

'We want to return'

Their appetite suitably whetted, Jens Keller's quick-witted Knappen can now approach the coming months with a true sense of optimism as they look to secure direct qualification for next season's competition. "This particular Champions League chapter is over, but we shouldn't feel too down," said goalscorer Tim Hoogland. "Now we have the chance to work hard until the end of the campaign and make sure we return to the Champions League next year."

Schalke needed a D-Day win over SC Freiburg to secure a place in the top four last season, but this term their route into Europe is beginning to look a little clearer. The Royal Blues have lost just once in the league since the winter break and could even usurp second-placed Borussia Dortmund at the weekend with victory over Eintracht Braunschweig. "I really hope we qualify for next year's Champions League," admitted goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann. "Perhaps then we'll get another chance to play Real and do a better job."

Christopher Mayer-Lodge