The name of Raul is as synonymous with Real Madrid as that of the great Alfredo di Stefano. Who would have thought that the Spanish legend would not only move to Germany but find a new lease on life at Schalke 04?
Schalke move has given Raul new wind beneath his wings
More than a few eyebrows were raised when former Real Madrid legend Raul Gonzalez Blanco swapped his spiritual home at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium for Gelsenkirchen's Veltins Arena last summer.
The Spanish forward's decision to quit Madrid after 16 years of service and move to Germany surprised a good many people, most of whom were also reeling at the shock of Schalke 04's audacity at even attempting to sign such a player.
Raul's experience and goals were supposed to give Schalke that extra boost they needed to go one better than the previous season and win a long-awaited Bundesliga title. Everything seemed to be in place for Felix Magath's runners-up to take the next step and become champions with help from the iconic Spaniard.
Things haven't gone exactly go to plan, however. After spending much of the first half of the season fighting to escape the relegation zone, Schalke are way off the title pace and will need to win in the German cup final to make it back into Europe. Magath now manages Wolfsburg after being fired in March.
No matter. The big part Raul has played in Schalke’s improbable march in the Champions League now means the gamble has paid off for both parties.
There was more to the skepticism that surrounded Raul’s arrival than whether he'd settle in Germany. Raul's production in his last year at Real was way off that his best years - and he'd fallen to third choice in the strike force pecking order.
Looking at his scoring tallies for Schalke, however, he's back to his old self, and that's a matter of belief, some say.
Raul is repaying Schalke's faith in him in the currency of goals
"It may be an obvious statement but Raul is a world star and a proven goal scorer," Schalke expert and sometime Sportschau.de correspondent Marcus Bark told Deutsche Welle. "He is that rare breed of striker that needs just one chance to score. This is the feeling he inspires in his Schalke team mates, that whatever the situation, he'll need just one chance to change the game."
Under Felix Magath Raul began the season playing too deeply, said Bark. This was in part because of the team's defensive frailties, and partly because he wasn't getting service from Schalke’s creatively-challenged midfield.
"Raul is best used as a second striker, waiting to pounce near the goal," Bark added. "He shouldn't have to run far to get to the goal, he must be right there, ready."
New coach Ralf Rangnick is more tactically daring than Magath, and showed against Inter Milan that he isn’t afraid to send players forward in numbers. As long as Raul is among them, the goals should follow, said Bark.
More than just goals, the 33-year-old Spaniard has brought inspiration and belief to a team that may be an also-ran in the Bundesliga but is looking like a dark horse well worth a flutter in the Champions League.
Raul's experience in European competition could be said to be worth a goal every time he steps out onto the pitch. This is a man who has won the Champions League three times (in 1998, 2000 and 2002) and who once played in a team with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham and Roberto Carlos - and whose status was not eclipsed by any of them.
When it comes to navigating through the choppy waters of the Champions League, there can be no better skipper to have at the wheel. Schalke's success in Europe this season while struggling in the Bundesliga may be the best evidence yet that Raul's inspiration is most felt in the competition he is most comfortable in.
Raul has a long association with the Champions League
"Raul is THE player for the Champions League," said Bark. He has "such self-confidence when he plays these games. His experience inspires the others and he demands respect from the opposition. He is the highest-scoring striker this competition has seen and this makes him very valuable to Schalke."
This shouldn't really be a surprise. Raul made his European bow back in 1995 when Real Madrid met Dutch side Ajax in a group stage game. To illustrate, Schalke defender Joel Matip was just five years old then.
Down the line
The 33-year-old Spanish striker's goal in the 5-2 hammering of holders Inter Milan at the San Siro was his 72nd in all European competitions and one that proved he has still got plenty to give at the highest level. However, the question remains: how much longer can the legend continue?
Raul says he has no regrets about leaving Real Madrid and coming to Schalke. "When I left Real, I left a great club but joined a great club," he recently said, ever the gentleman. "We have a very high level and a fine team."
Raul's agent even told Spanish radio this week that his client was consideting extending his contract another year, to 2013.
But before those talks get serious there's quite a lot of football to be played, and perhaps, titles to be won. Who knows? Maybe Schalke will be celebrating a season which failed to click in the Bundesliga but culminated in them being crowned kings of Europe. Stranger things have happened - like a Real Madrid legend being reborn in Gelsenkirchen.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann