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Huntelaar ponders Schalke future

With 38 goals in 37 appearances in all competitions for Schalke 04, it's fair to say that Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is having an outlandishly perfect season -- if it weren't for a quartet of other, even more outlandishly perfect strikers gracing the game at home and abroad. In the Bundesliga, for a start, the 28-year-old's formidable exploits have been slightly overshadowed by Mario Gomez. The Bayern Munich striker has only found the net 35 times in the same number of games, but he's ahead in the race for the "golden cannon" by two and has scored 10 goals in the Champions League, whereas "the Hunter" as they call him in the S04 dressing room, had to make do with 13 strikes in the less glamorous Europa League. (Schalke is facing Athletic Bilbao in the quarterfinals next week).

The freakish consistency of Cristiano Ronaldo (42 goals in 39 games, Real Madrid) and Lionel Messi (48 in 40 games, Barcelona) have taken more of the limelight off Huntelaar, still, and then there's also a certain Robin van Persie. The Arsenal captain's devastating form at the Emirates (33 goals in 39 games) has a more direct negative effect on Huntelaar's international standing. Van Persie takes up the central forward role in Bondscoach Bert van Marwijk's 4-2-3-1 system; Huntelaar will thus have to make do with the substitute bench in Poland and Ukraine, once again. Van Persie also kept him out of the starting XI at the World Cup in South Africa, while Ruud van Nistelrooy was ahead of him in the pecking order at the 2008 Euros. In 2006, he had missed out on the World Cup in Germany altogether. "It's better for him to play at the U-21 Euros," coach Marco van Basten had said at the time. Huntelaar did his best to prove him wrong: he was the leading goal scorer at the youth tournament and helped the Oranjes to their first U21 European championship.

"Sitting on the bench is part of the job," a philosophical Huntelaar told SI.com in Switzerland 2008, where he was only allowed to start in the group stage game against Romania, after the Netherlands had already qualified for the knockout phase. Disappointment at international level has long gone with the territory for Dutch center forwards, not just for him. For decades, the Netherlands have favored formations with only one orthodox number 9. What is more, said forward is ideally a "playing striker" like Van Persie, not a Huntelaar-type poacher. Veritable goal-scoring machines like Roy Makaay (Deportivo, Bayern) or Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (Leeds, Chelsea) fell foul of the tactical and aesthetic demands, for example: both didn't even reach double-figures in the orange uniform.

Huntelaar has amassed a very respectable 31 goals for the national team but only two of those have come at tournaments. He could score 50 more goals until the end of the season for Schalke, yet it wouldn't change his outlook: Van Persie will start for the Dutch in June, bar any injuries.

His compatriot Huub Stevens doesn't care, however. The Schalke 04 manager has recently called Huntelaar "the best box player in the world at the moment" and it's difficult to argue with that assessment. Van Persie, Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi all like to start from deeper positions; Gomez might be marginally more prolific but is technically a notch or two weaker than the teacher's son from Drempten.

The ?14 million ($18M) Schalke paid to AC Milan in August 2010 has started to look like a bargain as Huntelaar has finally managed to do justice to his talents. For years, bigger European clubs watched him score for fun in the Dutch league for Ajax (96 goals in three seasons). He was seen as the next Marco van Basten -- "he looks likes his clone," Real Madrid coach Bernd Schuster said later -- and became the first Ajax player in over two decades to notch up more than 30 goals in a season.

But the sheer number of Eredivisie goals also made it difficult to assess Huntelaar's true worth in a European context. Was he the next Bergkamp or the next Alfonso Alves? Real Madrid took the plunge for ?27 million ($35M) in 2008, but in the dysfunctional Bernabeu, the doubts only increased. Huntelaar hardly played and was sold to AC Milan a year later. In Serie A, he didn't settle, either.

At Schalke, though, he's been so good that a true superstar is now likely to be sacrificed on his behalf. Raúl has only been offered a one-year extension to his contract at the VeltinsArena, for vastly reduced figures. Schalke is intent to spend the money on renewing Huntelaar's deal, instead. He's out of contract in 2013 and can leave for a fixed fee of ?20 million ($26M) in the summer -- peanuts, by Premier League standards. The Royal Blues have reportedly offered him wages of ?8 million ($10.5M) per year, a princely sum that would make the forward the best paid player in the club's history. "We've had a pleasant talk with him," said Schalke sporting director Horst Heldt.

Heldt knows that it won't be easy to keep his prize asset, even if Schalke outbids most of the competition. The more experts like former S04 striker Youri Mulder advise him to stay in the Bundesliga ("Schalke is the right club for him, even if he dreams of England"), the more Huntelaar might feel there's unfinished business to take care of. "I wouldn't be afraid [to go] elsewhere," he told Kicker magazine on Thursday, "if you can make it here, you can make it everywhere." Maybe, but Gelsenkirchen is not New York. And Huntelaar will be faced with a difficult, potentially career-defining decision in the summer. Will he stay at Schalke, where he's the undisputed No. 1 striker, an extremely well paid local hero and virtually guaranteed Champions League soccer? Or will he be tempted to try his luck at a genuine heavyweight one last time? "I haven't heard anything else from other clubs and I don't want to either, right now," Huntelaar said, but that's probably not the whole truth. After a season this perfect, his appetite for an even more perfect end to a career that has taken too long to get properly going will only have grown.

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