Prolific in his native Netherlands, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar struggled to hit such heights after chancing his arm with Europe's elite. At FC Schalke 04, though, the 28-year-old may have found his niche. On Thursday he could make his 50th UEFA club competition appearance in the UEFA Europa League Group J match against FC Steaua Bucureşti.
It was all so easy for Huntelaar early in his career. The goals flowed with both sc Heerenven and AFC Ajax – 110 in 138 Dutch Eredivisie games – before the big names came calling. Real Madrid CF swooped in January 2009 and Huntelaar suddenly found himself a smaller fish in a far bigger pond. Eight goals in 20 Liga games in the second half of 2008/09 was a more than reasonable return, but not enough to meet the lofty expectations of the Santiago Bernabéu.
He nevertheless left an impression on former Merengues coach Bernd Schuster. "He looks like he was cloned from Marco van Basten," Schuster said. "The way he moves, shoots with both legs and his powerful headers, all reminds me of Van Basten."
When Huntelaar followed in Van Basten's footsteps by joining AC Milan, another short stint ensued for the forward: after a solitary season at the San Siro, he signed for Schalke in a reputed €14m record transfer for the German team. He has not looked back. "Here at Schalke there are always so many fans, away from home as well," he said. "I have not experienced that at other clubs. It is a fantastic feeling to be supported like this."
It has not all been plain sailing, however, with Huntelaar finding the net a modest, if respectable, eight times in 24 Bundesliga fixtures last term. A goals drought of more than 1,000 minutes at one point appeared to presage another unconvincing spell. Any such doubts have since been cast aside.
Huntelaar scored twice in the 5-0 triumph over MSV Duisburg in last season's German Cup final – his first major trophy – and has been an impressive spearhead during this 2011/12 campaign. He is just one behind the Bundesliga's leading marksman Mario Gomez, with 12 goals in 13 matches, and has also registered twice in the UEFA Europa League group stage.
"You could behead him and he would still score goals," said club-mate Lewis Holtby. "I knew the Dutch knew the holes in their cheeses but Klaas finds every hole in the opposition defence." Schalke general manager Horst Heldt added: "In the box he is one of the best strikers in the world."
For a man who has likened scoring goals to "riding a bike – you never forget", it is little surprise Huntelaar's recent proficiency has coincided with an equally clinical run for his country. He struck 12 times for the Dutch in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying, leaving him one shy of David Healy's all-time qualification record, and now boasts 30 goals in 49 Oranje outings – ten behind the country's record marksman Patrick Kluivert.
"I only look at myself and know I have to keep performing with my club and the Oranje like I have done recently," he said of the competition for places in Bert van Marwijk's side. "I should be a logical choice for the national coach at the EURO, but I am the one who must take care of that." Few of the teams in Friday's draw will relish facing a resurgent Huntelaar in Poland and Ukraine next summer.
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