Fan-favourite Huntelaar concluded his previous spell at Schalke in 2017 with 126 goals in 240 games with the club. - © imago images / Kirchner-Media
Fan-favourite Huntelaar concluded his previous spell at Schalke in 2017 with 126 goals in 240 games with the club. - © imago images / Kirchner-Media
bundesliga

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to make same impact at Schalke as Zlatan Ibrahimovic at AC Milan?

The veteran striker - nicknamed The Hunter - could emulate the AC Milan star by helping young teammates like Matthew Hoppe and firing Schalke up the table.

Ibrahimovic joined Milan in January of last year, and started a scoring spree that lifted the Italian giants from midtable to European qualification. bundesliga.com investigates whether Huntelaar - another veteran goalscorer - can offer a comparable boost to Schalke.

Former Schalke striker Youri Mulder says that returning club legend Huntelaar, 37, looks in similar shape to Ibrahimovic, 39. Can ‘The Hunter’ imitate the impact the Swedish star has made during his second spell at AC Milan?

Given the Dutchman’s record of 126 goals in 240 appearances during his first, seven-year spell in Gelsenkirchen, it’s easy to see why the Royal Blues - currently bottom of the Bundesliga - have called on Huntelaar’s help again. The Dutchman left the club in the summer of 2017, but he has since continued to score regularly in a second stint with Ajax.

Watch: Huntelaar's Top 5 Schalke goals

Huntelaar registered 45 Eredivisie goals in three-and-a-half seasons to be precise, with one of those campaigns abandoned prematurely when the coronavirus pandemic first hit. This season he was used mostly from the bench, but the new Schalke No.21 still scored seven goals in the Dutch top flight before returning to Germany this month.

Mulder, another former Netherlands international who got 43 goals in 202 games for Schalke between 1993 and 2002, is convinced that Huntelaar still has what it takes.

"When you look at the stats, Schalke are in a much better position in terms of scoring chances," he told Spox. "That shows that they need a finisher. I've seen Huntelaar a lot over the last few years and he's getting plenty of goals. Seven goals in 383 minutes [in the Dutch Eredivisie this season] speaks for itself. Of course it's a weaker league, but he knows the Bundesliga very well and his goalscoring threat is undisputed."

Mulder also stated that - aside from a minor calf problem - Huntelaar had been looking "very fit" recently.

"He almost looked like Zlatan Ibrahimovic," the 1997 UEFA Cup winner said. "He's well trained, extremely driven, shows great desire when he plays, and looks as fit as a fiddle. Physically I don't see any problems with him."

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 24 goals and counting since returning for a second spell with AC Milan. - ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

The comparison with Ibrahimovic is apt. The Swedish star could have been deemed by some to be winding down his career after he left Manchester United for LA Galaxy in March 2018. However, in last year's winter transfer window - at the age of 38 - he was tempted by one last mission in Milan.

Ibrahimovic had nothing to prove with the seven-time European champions, having won the league with them in 2011, finished as the top scorer in Serie A, and been inducted into the club's Hall of Fame after his first spell. With the Rossoneri struggling though, Ibra rolled back the years by scoring 10 goals and getting five assists as they stormed up the table. The former PSG star has been even more prolific this year, helping Milan to the top of Serie A.

As Ajax put it with a Twitter hashtag to announce his departure, Huntelaar is ready for #TheLastHunt before he retires. So can he emulate his fellow former Ajax and AC Milan striker Zlatan in what will seemingly be his final few months as a player?

There are plenty of reasons to think he can have a meaningful impact, especially since he still has a couple of years on the Swede.

Like Milan with Ibrahimovic, Gelsenkirchen has become a second home for Huntelaar. It is, after all, only a one-hour drive from his home town of Hummelo in the Netherlands.

And like Ibrahimovic did in Italy, Huntelaar returns to the club as a bona fide legend. He initially joined the Royal Blues from Milan on transfer deadline day in August 2010, shortly after Ibra had landed in Milan for the first time.

In that 2010/11 campaign, Huntelaar was perhaps not quite as ruthless as he would become, but he still helped Schalke reach the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. He rounded it off by scoring twice as they beat Duisburg 5-0 in the DFB Cup final - the first time in nine years that his new team had added a trophy to their collection.

The following season he and Spanish star Raul combined for 44 league goals - with The Hunter getting 29 in 32 matches. As a result he became the first Dutchman ever to finish as the Bundesliga’s top goalscorer, plundering 48 in all competitions as Schalke ended third in the league and as quarter-finalists in the UEFA Europa League.

Raul (l.) and Huntelaar combined to devastating effect for Schalke between 2010 and 2012. - Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

The goals kept coming - 82 in 175 Bundesliga games - before he returned to Ajax. Andre Breitenreiter, who coached Huntelaar at Schalke in the 2015/16 season, is certain that the former Real Madrid forward can now steer them to safety.

"The Hunter is the type of guy who will always score goals when you get him into the right position - because he has that finishing ability," Breitenreiter told Sport1. "He's a great guy and a role model - his presence alone will do Schalke a lot of good."

One player who could benefit, of course, is an up-and-coming goalscorer at Schalke.

Nineteen-year-old American Matthew Hoppe scored five goals in three matches - including a hat-trick against Hoffenheim on Matchday 15 - in the weeks leading up to Huntelaar's return.

"My feeling from him is that he would love to take on this challenge, and that deserves a lot of respect," Schalke head coach Christian Gross said of Huntelaar. "The man, his personality, his past at Schalke… I'm convinced he can help us in many ways, and he could certainly help Hoppe too. He could definitely learn a lot from him."

Watch: Hoppe and Glory?

Huntelaar finished with 158 goals in 257 games for Ajax across two different periods at opposite ends of his career. After deciding to once again leave the club he supported as a boy, though, he is ready and able for one final assignment.

"I see it as a huge challenge to try to help Schalke stay up," he said in his final interview with Ajax TV. "And I love challenges - I get energy from them. It'll be very difficult. A totally different situation than Ajax - pretty much entirely the opposite."

With more playing time though - and other attacking talents like Hoppe and Amine Harit alongside him - Huntelaar is confident he can end his playing career on a high note. "I can show more of my quality in the last months," he promised.

Huntelaar once told German magazine 11Freunde that goalscoring is like "an addiction" for him. Schalke will be the beneficiaries if - like Ibrahimovic - The Hunter can demonstrate once more that he is still as hungry as ever - and that class is permanent.