Manchester City winger Leroy Sane will head back to the club and the competition where it all began for him this week.
Reunions have been a theme of the Champions League last-16, with Angel Di Maria having the last laugh when he helped Paris Saint-Germain to a 2-0 win at Manchester United after being barracked by the Old Trafford faithful.
There is likely to be a far different feel when Sane returns to the Veltins Arena for the first leg of City’s meeting with Schalke, the Bundesliga team he left to move to the Premier League for an initial £37million in August 2016.
“The fans at Schalke are amazing and he didn’t do anything wrong. They’re proud that a big player like Leroy is one of their own,” former Switzerland international Tranquillo Barnetta, who played alongside Sane in Gelsenkirchen, told Omnisport.
“They see it like this, so that’s why I think it will be a good welcome.”
Barnetta made his own return to Schalke for the 2014-15 campaign, following a season-long loan and Eintracht Frankfurt, as a gifted young attacker made an instant impression upon graduating to the first-team squad.
“You already saw his talent in the beginning in practice,” he said of the then-18-year-old Sane. “It was impressive how he did everything.
“In the beginning, usually young players need some time but he was already there and present on the pitch, trying his things.
“He needed a couple more games to really make the breakthrough but, of course, with his speed and his talent I already saw that this was a special kid.”
Roberto Di Matteo replaced Jens Keller as head coach in the October and Sane made his second Bundesliga appearance the following month, coming on for the last 10 minutes of a 4-1 win over Mainz.
He ended the campaign with three goals from 13 top-flight games, seven of which came as a starter. But Sane truly announced himself as an exceptional talent in an unforgettable Champions League last-16 encounter at the Santiago Bernabeu.
“We lost the first game against Real Madrid 2-0, so we had nothing to lose,” Barnetta, now starring once again for hometown club St Gallen, recalled. “We thought maybe, if we can score, there is a little, little chance.”
They did just that – Christian Fuchs and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar establishing first-half leads that were cancelled out on each occasion by Cristiano Ronaldo.
An injury to Eric Maxim Choupo Moting saw Sane introduced for a Champions League debut before the half hour and, after Karim Benzema put Madrid ahead on the night, the teenager took centre stage.
Collecting a pass from Fuchs on the right-hand corner of the penalty area, Sane shifted inside and curled a vicious shot beyond Iker Casillas – becoming the youngest player to score against Madrid in the competition in the process.
Sane proved a menace for an increasingly petrified Madrid backline and a driving run through midfield – that trademark shift in direction that somehow appears at once jolting and smooth was already in evidence – helped to create Huntelaar’s second, making it 4-3 to Schalke and ensuring a grandstand finish.
“I’m not sure everyone recognised how close it was. In the last minutes we had a chance with [Benedikt] Howedes. If he scored this header we would have gone through and it would have been amazing,” Barnetta recalled, having been wowed by his youthful team-mate.
“He was not afraid of Real Madrid or the Bernabeu and the fans. He just came on the pitch and did his thing.
“I always say that there is a little bit of luck in a career. Maybe his luck was that he could score in this game.
“Everybody was watching this game and if you score against Madrid everybody is talking about you. If you score an amazing goal like Leroy did, all the clubs are asking, ‘Who is this guy?’.”
There have been bumps in the road since, most notably Sane’s surprise omission from Germany’s shambolic World Cup defence in Russia.
8 – Since the start of last season, Leroy Sané has both scored and assisted in eight @premierleague games for Manchester City, at least three more times than any other player at the club (Sterling and Agüero 5). Spectrum. #HUDMCI pic.twitter.com/xdYnBcAwpQ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 20, 2019
But season-on-season improvement is in evidence under Pep Guardiola and, with talks over a new contract on-going, Barnetta feels the sky is the limit.
“It’s a hard question, how good he can be,” he added, as Sane enters the Schalke game with 12 goals and 13 assists to his name this term in all competitions.
“But if he is continuing like this, to get even stronger and trying to score more goals than he already did, he can be so important for a team.
“He can make the difference, even if a team is not playing well, and that is what every team is looking for.
“I don’t know how much you have to improve if you are already playing for one of the best teams.
“I just hope for him he is continuing like this and, if he spends the rest of his life at Man City, it will be a great career.”
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