Marko Pjaca (r.) has scored two Bundesliga goals for Schalke in just 192 minutes on the pitch. - © © gettyimages
Marko Pjaca (r.) has scored two Bundesliga goals for Schalke in just 192 minutes on the pitch. - © © gettyimages

Marko Pjaca: the Juventus loanee who's hitting his stride at Schalke

He cites Ronaldinho as his idol and has been compared to Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, but just who is Schalke's on-loan Juventus winger Marko Pjaca, who secured three vital points for the Royal Blues in the Matchday 25 victory over Hertha Berlin?

Pjaca was only making his fifth Bundesliga appearance for Schalke since arriving from Italian giants Juventus in January, replacing the suspended Guido Burgstaller against Hertha. Eight minutes before half-time, the 22-year-old Croatia international opened the scoring at the Veltins Arena, guiding the ball past visiting keeper Rune Jarstein after Franco Di Santo got a clever touch on Nabil Bentaleb's cross.

Domenico Tedesco's side went on to weather a Hertha storm in the second half and held on for all three points, which moved them back above Borussia Dortmund into second in the table. For Pjaca it was a second goal in Royal Blue after netting on his only previous start, in a 1-1 draw with Hannover on Matchday 19.

Watch: Pjaca earned Schalke all three points against Hertha on Matchday 25

"It was great to get my second goal at the Veltins Arena," Pjaca told Schalke's official website, "I feel very happy at Schalke, I'm enjoying my time here. We created a lot of chances in the first half because we had lots of possession, but in the second half we let Hertha bring the game to us, which made things quite tense towards the end."

Pjaca joined Juventus from Dinamo Zagreb in the summer of 2016, after being named Croatia's Footballer of the Year in 2015 and 2016 and catching the eye with a number of headline performances. In December 2014, he notched a hat-trick for Dinamo as they edged a 4-3 thriller with Celtic in the UEFA Europa League. Then, at UEFA Euro 2016, he ran rings around Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba as Croatia claimed a shock 2-1 win over defending champions Spain.

That earned him a move to Italy after the Euros, but Pjaca only made 20 appearances in his first season before sustaining a cruciate ligament injury in a friendly against Estonia, which kept him sidelined between April and December 2017. Shortly after his return, he was loaned out to Schalke, who were only too happy to welcome such a versatile forward player into their squad.

"We're very pleased that Marko has chosen to join us, because a lot of clubs were interested in him," Tedesco enthused. "He brings some very special qualities to our team. He can be used in a number of positions - right and left, as a number 8 or even up top. He's robust and quick too."

Relatively tall for a forward player - standing at 6'1" - Pjaca is technically gifted and deceptively fleet-footed, as Alba discovered to his detriment during the Euros. While he grew up idolising Brazilian magician Ronaldinho ("I was forever trying to learn his skills and tricks!"), one of his former coaches at NK Lokomotiva believes Pjaca has more in common with French forward Benzema.

"If there's anyone he reminds me of when he's on the ball, it's Karim Benzema," said former Yugoslavia goalkeeper Tomislav Ivkovic, who began his career at Dinamo but spent most of his playing days in Portugal. "I'm not saying he's the new Benzema, but he definitely resembles him in one-on-one situations. He's one of those rare players who can go in both directions."

Hannover were the first Bundesliga side to get an idea of what Pjaca is capable of when he made his first start on 21 January. With 16 minutes gone, the young Croatian latched onto a neat ball from Amine Harit, turned inside Salif Sane, and unleashed a low shot that Philipp Tschauner could only parry into his own net. Schalke went on to draw the game 1-1, but it hadn't taken long for their new recruit to make an impact.

- © gettyimages / STR/AFP

Unsurprisingly, Pjaca's loan deal does not include a buyout option for Schalke, who will only be able to rely on his services until the end of the current season. Yet as Tedesco's men battle with the likes of Dortmund, Eintracht Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig for a place in next season's UEFA Champions League, the Croatia international could end up playing a key role - even if the coach is wary of putting too much pressure on his well-developed shoulders.

"Marko hasn't played 25 games in the last few months, let's not forget," the 32-year-old pointed out after the Hertha win. "He's been injured for a very long time and needs to find his rhythm."

Pjaca made way for Alessandro Schöpf after 66 minutes against the capital club, and that was the longest amount of time he has spent on the pitch in his five league appearances to date. With two goals in his two starts, though, the Juve man is staking a serious claim for a place in Tedesco's XI, and the Royal Blues boss may face a few selection headaches in the coming weeks.

Still, with his side second in the Bundesliga and through to the semi-finals of the DFB Cup, there are probably worse problems to have.

Andy Smith

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