It’s Europe or bust for Schalke

This season has marked a new chapter in the storied history of FC Schalke 04.

A new wind arrived in Gelsenkirchen last summer when club executives paraded two of the sharpest performers in the league, Markus Weinzierl and Christian Heidel. Given the failures of previous regimes, there was a sense that a bedding was in process.

Work has already began on the club’s summer pursuits. Nabil Bentaleb’s loan deal from Tottenham was turned into a permanent one following a superb run of form. But one player who won’t be adding to his Schalke record is 33-year-old Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a Netherlands international, who is expected to leave Gelsenkirchen this summer.

A former Ajax, AC Milan and Real Madrid striker, Huntelaar’s game time has been restricted to sub appearances due to the tip-top form of Guido Burgstaller. Though he claimed everything was possible this summer, the striker has hinted at his exit for some time. There is also the crucial aspect that the Dutchman is Schalke’s highest-earning player – and by some distance. Money that Schalke can use more efficiently under their new management team.

That is even more apt to the club’s fortunes, should Schalke fail to qualify for the Champions League. A top four finish, 13 points further away, is highly unlikely given the Royal Blues’ patchy form. So that leaves one clear avenue: the Europa League. It’s a tournament which holds many memories for Schalke, who won the last two-legged final of the UEFA Cup against Inter Milan in 1997.

Ajax are the team next in line after Schalke went through on away goals against Borussia Mönchengladbach in the last 16. Recent form has seen an improvement with Schalke winning three of their last five games, including Saturday’s 4-1 win over Wolfsburg.

Young starlet Max Meyer undoubtedly delivered one of his best-ever performances in the Bundesliga. His craft, guile and dynamic playmaking qualities are as good as any one else in the German top flight on his day. But that perfect day hasn’t come often enough for the 21-year-old, who is perhaps another candidate to be shipped out in the summer for economic reasons.

Max Meyer set to leave?

The club remains an attractive proposition to premium talents, like Leon Goretzka who changed from Bochum to Schalke instead of heading to Bayern Munich. Keeping them, however, and building a team around them is the challenge given the precarious nature of Champions League qualification. This is Schalke’s second season without the lure of Europe’s top club competition to attract high-quality players.

“One year without European football won’t hurt us,” said finance director Peter Peters at the club’s AGM. “If we do not reach the international competition, we have much fewer games and, of course, less revenue. But from an economic point of view, we are prepared for both scenarios,” added Heidel.

Irrespective of the financial implications, the gulf between Schalke and the elite teams in Germany would only widen. The Gelsenkirchen club has a phenomenal backing, a terrific stadium and a burgeoning international reputation – Schalke has teamed up with a marketing agency in New York to expand the club’s activities across the pond.

To harness that interest, there would be nothing better than European success. Although this season doesn’t quite have the feeling of triumph over it, there is still an opportunity to salvage something worthwhile for Weinzierl and Heidel.

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