Schalke can prove their potential in the Champions League – if Huntelaar stays
Rarely has the Ruhr been seen as a haven of creativity and artistry. Only on the football field can Germany’s industrial strongholds ever enchant the watching world with aesthetic excellence. But boy how they can.
Dortmund may not be the global centre of culture, but its footballers are currently the envy of the world for the graceful manner in which they have navigated the so-called Group of Death. Last night’s destruction of Ajax in Amsterdam confirmed qualification, and brought Juergen Klopp’s still inexperienced side one step closer to winning a group from which few backed them to progress.
Meanwhile, just a few miles down the road in Gelsenkirchen, BVB’s arch rivals have quietly gone about their own business, and advanced, albeit from a slightly less demanding group, equally comfortably. Schalke – who, in the glory days of Ernst Kuzorra and Fritz Szepan, practically invented beautiful football in Germany – may not have captured the world’s attention in the same way that BVB have, but top of their group they remain.
They have, moreover, done what Dortmund have thus far failed to do, and not fallen behind in their domestic campaign. At least not too far. While Bayern have stormed to an emphatic early points lead in the Bundesliga, it is Schalke who lead the chasing pack. Klopp’s boys have slipped and stumbled into fourth place, but have channelled most of their brilliance into one tournament.
So we might forgive the odd, proud Schalke fan for feeling a little embittered by the endless praise which is being lavished upon BVB. And yet, for all Schalke’s good early season form, this is, as ever in Gelsenkirchen, a year which will stand or fall on a whole host of ifs, buts and maybes.
Arguably the most important of these, is whether a certain Klass-Jan Huntelaar will still be wearing the royal blue shirt next season.
Upon Schalke’s qualification for the knockout stages last night, it was Huntelaar, not coach Huub Stevens, nor goalscorer Christian Fuchs, who had to fend off the most questions. One question, indeed, would not go away. Did qualification mean that the Dutchman would stay at Schalke beyond January?
As transfer rumours go, the one linking Huntelaar to Arsenal is hardly the most convincing. Both Huntelaar and Schalke’s Director of Sport Horst Heldt dismissed the claim last night. But Schalke, unlike Dortmund, have a tumultous record in recent times of holding on to big name players. Since the messy departure of Manuel Neuer, the club has seen Raúl depart after two successful years, and endless contract negotiations with the likes of Jefferson Farfán.
Since Felix Magath’s departure, the expenditure may have been a little more efficient, and the likes of Fuchs, Lewis Holtby and Roman Neustaedter are now forming the core of a new, progressive Schalke side. But if the club is to maintain the level they have reached in the first half of this season, Huntelaar’s continued presence is crucial.
Hence the focus on the striker last night. Schalke having outperformed the Dutchman’s alleged suitors in their Champions League group, there is a sense that, even if the rumours did prove substantial, a move to Arsenal would make little sense. The Premier League is no longer the guarantee of European success that it once was, and likewise, the Bundesliga no longer represents Champions League anonymity for a player of Huntelaar’s calibre. The German press have displayed a muted but tangible schadenfreude at the fate of Chelsea and Manchester City, and the general feeling is that, this year at least, the Bundesliga teams are to be equally as dangerous as their English counterparts.
Indeed, if Huntelaar does stay true to his contract, there is no reason to believe that Schalke, like BVB and Bayern, cannot remain competitive until the latter stages of the competition. For so long the nearly men of German football, the Koenigsblauen now have the opportunity to prove their potential. As entertaining and artistic as Dortmund they may not be, but a force to be reckoned with Huub Stevens’ side remain.
Picture:Getty ImagesTagged in: Arsenal, Bundesliga, Dortmund, football, german football, Huntelaar, Schalke, UEFA Champions League
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