By Enis Koylu
On the surface, Schalke fans have little to be optimistic about. In a season which promised a lot, Jens Keller’s side look set to battle it out for the final Champions League spot once more, amid more problems with inconsistency and injury.
Key players, most notably Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Jefferson Farfan, have been missing through injury. Results have suffered, culminating in a 2-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund, their hated rivals, 10 days ago.
But the Veltins Arena faithful can always look to their club’s incredible academy for a source of comfort. The list of alumni speaks for itself. Manuel Neuer and Mesut Ozil have hit the big time after coming through the S04 ranks, while Ilkay Gundogan is on the verge of joining them.
Joel Matip and Julian Draxler are local boys who have sealed their places in the first team, the latter widely acknowledged to be one of the finest prospects in world football. And another gem is being unearthed right now in Max Meyer.
Bundesliga anoraks have long had their eye on the 18-year-old from Oberhausen, about 20km from Gelsenkirchen. After joining the club four years ago, he stood out with his stellar scoring record at youth level and was duly rewarded with second place in the Under-17 category of the Fritz Walter medal behind Leon Goretzka, ironically now his team-mate.
His key moments so far
|Jul 1 2009
||Joins Schalke from Duisburg aged 14|
|Nov 11 2009
||Scores in his only Germany U-15 appearance|
||Crowned best player at U-17 Euros. Also top scorer|
|Feb 16 2013
||Marks Bundesliga debut with an assist against Mainz|
|Sep 25 2013
||Scores first professional goal against Darmstadt|
|Oct 26 2013||Nets two minutes after coming on against BVB|
But it all could have been so different, with the teenager admitting recently that his first choice when joining S04 had been Borussia Monchengladbach, where many of his friends had gone.
The tail end of last season was when he made his first appearances for the senior team, mostly off the bench. His impact was immediate, helping to rescue a vital draw at Mainz by setting up Michel Bastos within 10 minutes of making his Bundesliga debut in February.
Schalke were so impressed with the youngster’s performances at the tail end of last term that they awarded him the No.7 shirt which had previously been temporarily retired following Spanish legend Raul’s departure from the club.
He did not disappoint. With his side up against it in the Champions League qualifier against PAOK, he produced a sublime ball for Draxler to score a vital second away goal. It was a brilliant and decisive cameo.
More recently he discovered his best goalscoring form, netting a spate of goals starting with a strike in the DFB-Pokal against Darmstadt in September. He claimed that the adrenalin rush kept him awake all night, but it was just the beginning of a run which went on to include goals against Augsburg, Braunschweig and even arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, against whom he scored just two minutes after his introduction.
Comparisons with Draxler are inevitable given their attacking midfield roles and local connections, but his combination of dribbling, technique, low centre of gravity and pace are eerily reminiscent of Lionel Messi.
He is, of course, some way from being able to emulate the Barcelona superstar, but if he continues on his current trajectory, the sky is truly the limit for him.
Rumours of interest from Fiorentina and Chelsea have started lately, but Schalke, eager to keep hold of Meyer, are set to offer him an extension to his contract, which expires in 2018.
“We want to extend early with Meyer and are in talks with him,” Horst Heldt said recently, hoping to get rid of the exit clause in his current deal. He later added: “Max has delivered very good performances, so we want to reward him accordingly. His contract reflects his achievements.”
Perhaps the Veltins Arena is the best place for him. Schalke may have their problems but Keller’s background with coaching young players will help Meyer reach his potential in the coming years.
Meyer has already announced himself as one of the hottest prospects in Germany. All eyes will inevitably be on Draxler when Schalke take on Chelsea on Wednesday, but the Blues back line would be well advised to keep a close watch on his younger team-mate, too.
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