After a tricky start to the season, Schalke have started to climb the table and Breel Embolo is emerging as a key weapon in the club's armoury.

Only two of the Royal Blues' first five goals this season came from open play, and both were scored by the forward, who has been forced to pull out of the Switzerland squad for their upcoming UEFA Nations League ties with Belgium and Iceland.

He has instead stayed in Gelsenkirchen over the international break and will work on his strength and conditioning – as if he needed any more. "Embolo makes an impression on opponents," said Schalke's sporting director Christian Heidel. At over 6 feet tall, 186 pounds and able to move that block of muscle at speeds of up to 21 miles per hour, Embolo is indeed a formidable prospect on the pitch.

WATCH: 60 seconds under pressure with Breel Embolo

Add to that the fact his Herculean frame contains weapons-grade skill and balletic finesse, and — with plenty of time to round off the rough edges aged just 21 — it is no wonder he is putting the frighteners on his opponents.

It is his very real, malleable, raw talent which made him Schalke's record signing in summer 2016 when he swapped Basel — the Swiss city where he grew up — for Gelsenkirchen. The step up to the Bundesliga was supposed to be the making of Embolo, but the first chapter of the story did not have a happy ending. 

Embolo had scored his first Bundesliga goals only the previous match when his first campaign since crossing the border was laid to waste just seven games young. In a challenge with Augsburg's Konstantinos Stafylidis, he broke an ankle and lower leg, sidelining him for nearly a year and brutally slamming the brakes on a career that had enjoyed a jet-propelled trajectory over the two preceding seasons.

Breel Embolo and Roger Federer - two of Basle's biggest sporting exports.

If any club knows about potential, it's FC Basel. The 20-time Swiss champions have produced a who's who of prospects who have gone on to establish themselves at the highest level, notably ex-Bayern Munich man Xherdan Shaqiri and former Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder Granit Xhaka. Embolo, born in Cameroon but who arrived in Basel aged six, produced performances for a local side, FC Nordstern, that ensured he did not take flight under the Swiss giants' radar. 

Four minutes after being sent onto the pitch as a substitute by coach Murat Yakin, Embolo made a 4-0 Basel win a 5-0 one with his first senior strike to announce himself on the national stage; one breathtaking moment of skill and strength that brought a maiden goal in the UEFA Champions League — aged 17 — against Ludogorets Razgrad in November 2014, and Europe discovered what Switzerland already knew.

"My heart cheers when I see him playing," said former Basel captain Marco Streller. Former Borussia Dortmund midfielder and UEFA Champions League winner Paulo Sousa, who followed Yakin in the St. Jakob-Park dugout, was seemingly ready to be president of his young striker's fan club. "I love everything about him," the ex-Portugal international gushed.

Breel Embolo has had his run-ins with coaches, but everybody is happy when he's celebrating like this. © imago / DeFodi

Not all Embolo's coaches have felt that way. His very first, Karl Müller, at FC Nordstern in the Basel suburbs was adamant, "I would have kicked him out…it was only after we had sent a written warning to his mother that he was given a second chance." 

Embolo's physique and qualities have seen him compared to Mario Balotelli, but while the former Manchester City and Liverpool striker is renowned as much for his prima donna performances and madcap moments as his virtuoso brilliance, Embolo is now anything but the impetuous child prodigy that so enraged Herr Müller.

Take the moment when, in November 2017, Schalke coach Domenico Tedesco gave his striker — struggling for form and fitness after his near-year-long injury lay-off — a very public volley of criticism.

"Everyone saw after just eight minutes of the Cup game against Wehen Wiesbaden that he was exhausted," Tedesco told media. "Breel has not trained well in recent weeks, and can't perform well in any area. He doesn't run enough and isn't giving his all. They're all symptoms that say he's not enjoying his best spell."

"He's a player who runs enough up front for three - that means we don't expect a goal a game from him." - Christian Heidel, Schalke sporting director

He wasn't. But though Embolo has the sort of heavyweight build that suggests he would bounce off the ropes fighting, Tedesco's words hit home and provoked the sort of counter-punch the Schalke boss had been hoping for. "What the coach said was meant to boost me and it worked," Embolo explained. "The game in Wiesbaden didn't go well for me, but despite that, I didn't stick my head in the sand." Coach Müller would have been proud. 

"I like him as a person as much as I do as a player," said Embolo's former Basel teammate, the ex-Mainz midfielder Fabian Frei. "His feet will stay on the ground – he won't be shooting from 50 metres to score the goal of the season. You can give him good advice and he's ready to take it without getting angry."

And his team enjoys the benefit of his 'I'm not the star, the team is' attitude as he gobbles up an average of 6.5 miles per 90 minutes — a total any self-respecting midfielder would happily stand behind — while harrying defenders and throwing himself into challenges he wins a healthy 43 per cent of the time.

Breel Embolo has an admirable scoring record for Schalke, having made many of his appearances as a substitute. © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA / Boris Streubel

"He's a player who runs enough up front for three," Heidel said. "That means we don't expect a goal a game from him." Actually, perhaps the Schalke sporting director should raise his expectations, because he has still gotten a very healthy return from his biggest investment yet, despite his forward's marathon-esque work-rate. 

Six goals and six assists from 34 Bundesliga appearances looks nothing spectacular, but consider Embolo played only 16 of those games in the starting XI, and those stats get a whole lot sexier.

After opting to represent the country of his childhood and not his birth, Embolo heard the Switzerland fans call for national team boss Vladimir Petkovic to play him during the Nati's run to the Last 16 of last summer's FIFA World Cup with the chant they have for their unassuming hero to the tune of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'.

Given that he had to make a lightning round trip from Russia to Zürich for the birth of his first child in June, Embolo may not be sleeping too well right now. But as his stunning strike against Mönchengladbach on Matchday 3 showed, Embolo, who could have become an Indomitable Lion with Cameroon, is now roaring with Schalke.

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