x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Raul, Schalke's inspiration and leader

The Spanish striker has proved a leader on the field since joining the Bundesliga side, writes Ian Hawkey.

Raul has proven to be the catalyst for Schalke's fine run to the last eight of the Champions League since joining from Real Madrid.
Raul has proven to be the catalyst for Schalke's fine run to the last eight of the Champions League since joining from Real Madrid.

Heavy symbolism tends to be unavoidable when you have left a stamp as bold as that of Raul Gonzalez Blanco on a sport.

But there would be something extra resonant should the Spaniard score his 72nd goal in European club competitions at San Siro tonight.

Somewhere nearby, the watching Pippo Inzaghi, of AC Milan, will growl that his previous record of 70 goals in European club tournaments has moved further back on the rankings and that, now that Inzaghi is 37, and his club are not in the Champions League again until next season, there may be no catching Raul.

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Raul was a big catch, even at 33, when Felix Magath, then the manager of Schalke 04, travelled to Madrid last summer to invite the then Real Madrid captain to lunch.

Although Magath has a Puerto Rican father, he does not speak Spanish; Raul spoke no German so they needed a translator for what Magath wanted to say to Raul, and Christoph Metzelder, the German international defender who was coming to the end of his three seasons as a Real Madrid player, volunteered.

Two serious men, Magath and Raul, got along well, and so a scenario which for 16 years had seemed unthinkable to Real supporters began to take shape.

In July, Raul announced that he would leave Real - the only club he had ever played for, where he had smashed all goalscoring records and with whom he had won three Champions League gold medals and six Spanish league titles - on a free transfer and sign for Schalke, a Bundesliga team that four times in the past 10 years had finished runners-up in their league.

Of the available options for a player with huge global status, and a first-class reputation for professionalism, it seemed slightly peculiar. Raul might have earned a far higher salary going to the United States, or the Middle East; he could probably have hiked up his wages in the English Premier League.

But what Schalke could offer him was Champions League football, and, as long as he stayed fit and sharp, very likely a first-team place.

That was what he had lost in the Real Madrid hierarchy because Manuel Pellegrini, last season's head coach, had begun to prefer the faster Cristiano Ronaldo, the younger Gonzalo Higuain and the more explosive Karim Benzema.

But just the other day Pellegrini, who risked disapproval from loyal madridistas for dropping the captain, reflected on what he had done and offered this superlative in describing Raul. "It was probably the hardest decision I have had to make in all my many years as a coach. I have never come across a more intelligent player than Raul."

What Pellegrini meant was the acute street-sense that Raul has always brought to the role of centre-forward. Even when he was young, a teenage prodigy at Real, Raul was not strikingly pacey. He is slightly built, and though he leaps well enough to meet a cross, his heading technique is by no means exceptional.

He is not a mazy, tantalising dribbler, nor does he always hit the sweet spot with a volley. But whatever it is that defines a great finisher, Raul has it, and his understanding of where to place himself in the penalty area, whether to make his runs to the near or far post, has allowed him to reach all his landmarks for potent goalscoring.

After a slowish start getting off the mark in Germany, Raul has emerged as the reliable figurehead for a Schalke team otherwise bewilderingly inconsistent, a characteristic which partly led to Magath's departure last month, to be replaced by Ralf Rangnick.

Though his German is still limited, Raul is talked of by colleagues as a genuine leader. Naturally, he is the side's top scorer and his relish for European nights appears undimmed.

A Spanish compatriot recalls how Raul leapt with joy after Schalke's impressive victory over Valencia in the previous, last-16 round, shouting "Two more games! Two more games!" because that was what Schalke had earned themselves in the Champions League.

It might yet stretch to more than two games if they can overcome Inter Milan, the title-holders, starting tonight. Their best chance of doing so rests at the feet of their celebrated number seven.

sports@thenational.ae

10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +5