Tuesday March 10, 2015. German pretenders Schalke against European titans Real Madrid, Champions League last 16.
The previous year, Real had spanked them 6-1 at the Veltins-Arena before winning 9-2 on aggregate, going on to win an unprecedented tenth Champions League title and the first of four European titles in five years.
Diminutive midfielder Max Meyer played 90 minutes in both games, missing a glorious chance to equalise at 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabéu before Real accelerated away. He wouldn’t be overawed there again.
Los Blancos also triumphed 2-0 in Gelsenkirchen in the first leg in 2015, meaning on that stunning night in the Spanish capital the visitors were a one-armed David against eleven Goliaths.
Twenty minutes in, Meyer danced through three defenders and slid in Tranquillo Barnetta, whose cross was powered in by Christian Fuchs. Just before half-time Iker Casillas couldn’t hold his low shot and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar slammed home the rebound. Leroy Sané scored Schalke’s third but the precocious wunderkind was overshadowed by fellow 19-year-old Meyer, as Madrid lost 4-3 but scraped through 5-4 on aggregate.
‘German Messi’ monikers were unhelpful and overplayed but this is a player who made his Champions League debut and set up Julian Draxler with ‘the €20 million pass’ in a play-off against PAOK to help Schalke qualify for Europe all aged 17, and was given the responsibility of fitting his slight shoulders into Raúl’s number seven shirt at the club.
As a teen he debuted for Germany the year they won the World Cup and at the 2016 Olympics he captained them, scoring four in six, including one in the final they eventually lost on penalties to Brazil.
After falling out with Schalke over accusations of bullying – the club blamed the antagonism on believing his own hype – he signed for Crystal Palace on a free with wages of £125,000 a week. So how and why has a player earning half a million a month only started five games this season?
Evidently, manager Roy Hodgson has players he trusts and players he doesn’t, with talent placed second to trustworthiness; remember Victor Camarasa? Trouble is, if more than a couple of the trusted few are injured, Hodgson is unwilling to introduce anyone else – a particular problem with a small squad and when games come thick and fast over Christmas or a Premier League coda.
Hodgson’s tactical rigidity and consistency is often a strength – not many managers could finish higher with Palace’s current squad – and it can also be a weakness. Dogged pragmatism isn’t imprudent given Premier League money is funding the stadium expansion and academy upgrades, while the club’s longest ever top-flight spell isn’t to be sniffed at. But successive one-year plans to stay in the division have an expiry date, and given the first-team squad’s age profile, it’s rapidly approaching.
Only four players on the ‘trusted list’ are under 29 years old and none under 27, so all those players are reliable and experienced now but also meaning the squad will be 90% useless in four years’ time. The board are making noises about signing players with potential to improve but relative youngsters already at the club like Meyer and Jaïro Riedewald are rarely afforded opportunities to show they can take the club forward.
Meyer has definitely failed to hit the lofty heights expected of him, but is often thrown on with five minutes left, out of position or forced into Hodgsonesque donkey work while trying to be a creative spark amongst less talented teammates not on the same wavelength.
He isn’t particularly tall, fast or strong (although he bulked up significantly in this campaign’s pre-season) and so struggles with the tracking back and physical confrontation essential to the Hodgson Palace DNA. Yet Meyer’s vision, balance, agility, and ability to pass forwards are almost unique in the squad, save for the talismanic Zaha.
Meyer’s introduction against Burnley seemed to galvanise the Eagles, who looked brighter in the 13 minutes he was on the pitch than in the entire previous 77. The next game, needing a flash of inspiration against Leicester, Hodgson made two like-for-like swaps, defensive midfielder for defensive midfielder.
Andros Townsend and Tyrick Mitchell didn’t emerge until 33 minutes after Leicester scored the opener, Townsend creating the best two chances of the game in his eight minutes on the pitch. Meyer didn’t even warrant a second glance. For the German, a potential oasis of creativity in a desert of bluntness, it was a slap in the face.
Max Meyer at Crystal Palace right now is like Schrödinger’s cat. Simultaneously both alive and dead in the hearts of Palace fans, both the spoiled prodigy who will never fulfil his promise and the mature, vastly underrated playmaker who embarrassed Real Madrid in their back yard. So which is he? The only way to answer is to open the box, play him and find out.