When Raul Gonzalez Blanco signalled across the pitch at Real Zaragoza's La Romareda stadium that he was in discomfort, one of the most distinguished episodes of a modern football career was drawing to a close. Raul's injury, just after half-time during the last weekend of April while playing for Real Madrid, would prevent his involvement in any further matches last season. Unable to hobble off immediately, he still managed to score a goal - his 228th in Spain's Primera Liga - but it was a tepid sort of goodbye for so great a player.
Spain, for whom Raul, 33, is the leading all-time goalscorer, have since won their first World Cup without him, and Real, for the first time in 16 years, have planned for a new season without their departed captain. Raul, meanwhile, has moved on himself and should this evening make his Bundesliga debut for Schalke 04 at Hamburg, a genuine test of both clubs' credentials as challengers for the German title.
At centre-forward for the home team will be an old friend. "I called Raul soon after he had signed for Schalke," Hamburg's Ruud van Nistelrooy said ahead of the first weekend of the German league season, "and I said to him he had made a very good decision to come to Germany. It's a good league, but that he will need to adapt." Van Nistelrooy, 34, was speaking from experience. His acclimatisation to Bundesliga football began in January, when he said farewell to Raul and the Real dressing-room to begin his new adventure. His first six months had a stop-start character, hampered by injuries and frustrated by Hamburg's inconsistency.
Van Nistelrooy still scored five times in his 11 appearances last season. The early indications for his first full campaign are even more promising. The former Holland striker scored a hat-trick last Sunday in the cup win over lower-division Torgelower. "It's important to give an early sign, for all of us at Hamburg, of how we mean to continue," Van Nistelrooy said. "But I know Schalke will be thinking the same, and so will Raul."
The Bundesliga is excited at having on its stage the two greatest goalscorers in the history of the Champions League - Raul and Van Nistelrooy have 126 goals between them in Europe's most elite club competition . But Van Nistelrooy has warned Raul that he may find his star status defined very differently in Gelsenkirchen than it was in the capital of Spain. "Here, things are much more open," the Dutchman said he told the Spaniard, "in that the fans are much closer to the players. The public come to training every day, they approach you to talk and ask for autographs.
"In Spain, they are kept at a much greater distance, so when they do see famous players in a restaurant or in a shop, they get more excited." Might that bother the original so-called Galactico? Van Nistelrooy thought not. "Raul is a complete professional and an excellent person. We have a strong friendship, although I will only be thinking about that before the kick-off and after the final whistle blows."
Expectation will be heavy on both clubs. Hamburg failed to reach last year's Europa League final staged in their own city, losing to English side Fulham in the semi-final, and eventually finishing seventh in the Bundesliga. Schalke hope Raul's arrival will galvanise a squad who maintained hopes of the title until the penultimate weekend of the campaign, eventually finishing in second place. email@example.com
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