Football: Real rejects in the limelight

PARIS, Feb 16, 2011 (AFP) - The top marksman of all-time in European competition, with three Champions League medals to his name, went head to head Tuesday with an opponent who once spent time in his huge shadow at Real Madrid - but the result was a score draw.

In recent years, Real, nine-times continental kings, had cast sentiment aside and decided both were surplus to requirements - one over the hill, the other deemed not capable of climbing it.

Real's decision to offload favourite son Raul and bit-part player Roberto Soldado was one of the few occasions in their contrasting careers that the two men suffered the same fate.

But they shared the plaudits Tuesday with both on the mark in a 1-1 draw at the Mestalla Stadium in Valencia, Soldado netting his sixth Champions League goal of the campaign for the hosts only for Raul to fire home his third in typical predatory fashion to give new German club Schalke every hope of reaching the quarter-finals.

Both men harboured teen dreams of success in the white of Real - dreams which would be realised many times over in the case of Raul - 228 league goals in 550 games on the way to his three European crowns and countless domestic honours, overhauling the legendary Alfredo di Stefano as all-time club top scorer.

A 16-year love affair between club and player finally came to an end only last summer, swept out by Jose Mourinho's new broom.

Soldado, in contrast, while likewise starting out with Real's youngsters, would make only a handful of appearances for the 'merengues' - scoring twice in the league and once in Europe - before he was sent out on loan to Osasuna.

He then found his feet once more back in the capital with Madrid suburbs side Getafe before home town club Valencia took him on last summer after Barcelona had prised away David Villa.

And the 25-year-old's goals in Europe have given his career the centre-stage shot in the arm that was missing in Madrid.

In Tuesday's close-fought encounter, both shone as Soldado gave the Spaniards, finalists in the competition in both 2000 and 2001 - Raul scored against them in the millennium final - the lead on 17 minutes.

French fullback Jeremy Mathieu went down the left and Soldado clipped in an instinctive finish from close range past visiting keeper Manuel Neuer.

But Raul, whom some sections of the Spanish media described as the returning "anti-hero" after his departure for Germany, provided a stark riposte as Valencia thereafter sat largely on their laurels.

The 33-year-old showed he has lost none of his predatory skills as he latched onto a pass threaded through by Jurado, cushioning the ball on his foot to shield it from David Navarro before sliding home a low shot past Vicente Guaita for his 69th Champions League goal and 71st overall in Europe - one better than Filippo Inzaghi's tally for AC Milan.

"It was an important goal for the team - and for me as well, of course," said Raul.

"We got a good result - but there are still 90 minutes to get through against a dangerous rival," he told reporters afterwards.

Soldado observed: "You always have to beware of Raul. Always."

Inter Milan's Samuel Eto'o leads this season's competition goal charts to date with seven ahead of Bayern Munich's Mario Gomez and Barcelona's Lionel Messi - and now the unheralded Soldado.

But it was Raul's return which was the talk of Spain, especially after his goal, with Marca magazine commenting that "Raul silenced the boo boys at the Mestalla," the ex-Spain striker having first received a slightly frosty reception.

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