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Striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar believes the future is bright for FC Schalke 04, highlighting new-found stability as the foundation for their improving fortunes. "Something beautiful can emerge," he told UEFA.com.
Schalke were surprise UEFA Champions League contenders last season, trouncing holders FC Internazionale Milano 7-3 on aggregate en route to the semi-finals, but that European high was offset by an indifferent domestic campaign in which Die Knappen finished a lowly 14th in the Bundesliga.
Huntelaar says such inconsistency stemmed from instability, and the fact the club had three coaches last term certainly reflected in their disappointing league results. Since Huub Stevens was appointed in September, however, Schalke's fortunes have improved considerably – they now lie third in the German table and are UEFA Europa League challengers after qualifying comfortably as Group J winners.
"This season we are playing better," Huntelaar told UEFA.com. "We are a bit more stable. We are still not at our peak, but we are growing and certainly heading towards that peak.
We have a very young team with many young players who can still learn a lot. It's important you hold onto that stability to find your way, then something beautiful can emerge."
The Dutch international knows well the value of permanence. After breaking through at sc Heerenveen, where he scored 34 goals in 46 league games, he plundered a further 76 in 94 Eredivisie sorties with AFC Ajax, before his career stalled. Big-money moves to Real Madrid CF and AC Milan produced just 13 and 11 top-flight starts respectively.
It was not until the 28-year-old landed in Gelsenkirchen in August 2010 that he was afforded the chance to prove his finishing skills were intact. Having settled at Schalke, Huntelaar has 16 Bundesliga and six UEFA Europa League goals already this term – the result of patience from his employers, perhaps, not to mention a late growth spurt.
"I have become stronger physically. I'm someone who has grown physically at a later age, I was always one of the smallest players," said a player who appeared once in the Eredivisie for PSV Eindhoven before heading to Heerenveen.
"I was around 1.60m or so, and then when I was 17 or 18 I started growing. You can see that in my development now, physically speaking, and I think even now, the older I get, the stronger and better I get. I think I still have one or two years before I reach my peak."
Ominous words for FC Viktoria Plzeň, Schalke's UEFA Europa League round of 32 opponents, who must contend not only with the prolific Huntelaar but with a coach, Stevens, who has won the competition before. "Germans are crazy about football so everyone knows Schalke won the UEFA Cup in 1997 and that the same coach was here," said Huntelaar. "There was also a reserve keeper then – [Mathias] Schober – who's still with us now.
"We got through the group fairly easily and now we start with Viktoria Plzeň who are a good club," he continued. "They played in the Champions League [this season] in the same group as Barcelona and they are Czech champions. They are quite a good team so we shouldn't underestimate them. It was important to get through the group phase and now it really starts, it gets nicer and nicer the further you get."
Schalke visit the Czech Republic for the first leg on 16 February before the return in Gelsenkirchen a week later.
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