Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored a hat-trick in a fairy-tale comeback from injury to steer Schalke 04 to a 4-1 win over Hamburg SV on Sunday and boost their chances of UEFA Champions League action next season.
The Dutchman, who had been out with a knee injury since early last month, could not have hoped for a better return with Schalke firmly in control of fourth place which leads to the Champions League qualifying rounds.
Schalke, who are seven points behind third-placed Bayer 04 Leverkusen with three games left, terrorized a disoriented Hamburg defense, with Huntelaar at the heart of the action from the start.
“Huntelaar had already been working very hard in training,” coach Jens Keller told reporters. “We are happy that he is back. It was a well-deserved win even by this score. Now we have taken a small step and given ourselves some breathing space.”
Schalke sports director Horst Heldt shrugged off talk of a possible deal with former Bayern Munich player Stefan Effenberg to become their coach from next season, saying no final decision on the future of Keller had yet been taken.
Marcell Jansen’s fifth-minute header was quickly canceled out after the striker, nicknamed “the Hunter,” found Michel Bastos on the edge of the box and the Brazilian wrong-footed goalkeeper Rene Adler with a clever low shot.
Huntelaar then combined with Julian Draxler with a fine overhead-kick and completed the swift move, tapping in from close range himself as the Hamburg defense were caught napping yet again.
The forward connected with a perfect Raffael cross with a diving header to give his team a two-goal cushion, before heading in his third when Adler palmed a save on to the forward.
Hamburg, who have conceded 16 goals in their past five games, are still in the running for a Europa League spot in eighth place.
The result also leaves Schalke three points ahead of rivals Eintracht Frankfurt, who did themselves no favors with a 0-0 draw at FSV Mainz 05 earlier on Sunday.
After a dull first half, the home fans briefly had something to celebrate until Mainz’s Andreas Ivanschitz’s effort was ruled off side.
Eintracht coach Armin Veh threw two more strikers, Olivier Occean and Srdjan Lakic, into the mix after an hour, but the move failed to pay off.
Mainz, who were without injured striker Adam Szalai, dropped to 10th, five points off the Europa League spots.