By Hassan Talib Haji
When Klaas-Jan Huntelaar made the move to Real Madrid from Ajax in January 2009, it was the culmination of years of positive work. But, six months and some disappointing performances later, he was on his way to AC Milan.
Having scored the consolation in Schalke's 6-1 home thumping by Madrid three weeks ago, Tuesday's Champions League last 16 second leg will be another opportunity for the Dutch hitman to show his former employers exactly what they missed out on.
Huntelaar's road to the top was long and arduous. He failed to make the grade at PSV, who brought him to the club as a teenager. A loan spell at De Graafschap was unsuccessful in sparking him into life, but a subsequent temporary move to AGOVV in the Eerste Divisie proved to be a godsend.
His goalscoring form in the second tier convinced Heerenveen to pay for his services, before continued brilliance prompted Ajax to shell out €9 million for him. He continued to find the net with aplomb in Amsterdam and, within three years of his move, Ajax had trebled their money when the Santiago Bernabeu side came calling.
It seemed perfect. He was in the Spanish capital to replace the injured Ruud van Nistelrooy, his compatriot, but he could only manage eight goals in the second half of the season and Manuel Pellegrini, who took over the club in the summer of 2009, was not interested in retaining him.
|HUNTELAAR'S CAREER LEAGUE STATS
It perhaps was not his fault. Shortly after his arrival, Madrid president Ramon Calderon resigned from his post following a corruption scandal and Bernd Schuster was fired as coach. Beyond that, the club were only allowed to register one winter signing in the Champions League and plumped for Lassana Diarra instead of 'the Hunter'.
The nail in the coffin was the election of Florentino Perez in the summer, which heralded a new era of spending and Huntelaar was collateral damage in their bid to bring in the likes of Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. A return of eight goals in 20 league games was far from awful.
Huntelaar is not bitter about his Madrid experience, though.
"It's a special tie in many ways. Madrid are a great club with some fantastic people and I used to play there . I very much look forward to playing against them," he said prior to the first leg.
"It was very special to score goals for Real Madrid, especially in front of the home crowd at the Bernabeu."
Horst Heldt, now Schalke general manager tried in vain to bring him to Stuttgart, but AC Milan won the race for his signature and Huntelaar swapped one European giant for another.
Things worked out little better at San Siro. Second fiddle to star names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, under the vision of the club's directors, meant he had no choice but to change clubs for the third time in 18 months when the summer of 2010 came.
Schalke proved to be the home he had long looked for. Sure, he has struggled with injuries across the course of his three-and-a-half years in Gelsenkirchen but remains a key member of the team. When he plays, Schalke play well; when he is missing they miss a focal point.
In 2011-12, his only season in the Bundesliga where he remained completely injury free, he showed his full potential by scoring 48 goals in as many games. His confidence had never been higher.
Schalke's entire game is built around him. They know in Huntelaar they have one of Europe's deadliest strikers and on Tuesday he has the chance to show Madrid the quality they might have enjoyed had they invested the same confidence in him.