It is hard to imagine how 2011 could have been much better for Benedikt Howedes. With his club Schalke, the defender made it as far as the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in the spring, and laid hands on the German Cup shortly afterwards. As of this season, he rates as the youngest captain in the Bundesliga after rising to the top of the hierarchy in Gelsenkirchen. As you would expect, none of this has escaped the attention of Germany coach Joachim Low.

The defender was rewarded for his impressive progress with a maiden run-out in national colours in a 2-1 victory over Uruguay at the tail-end of last term. “Benedikt is one of the younger players we've been watching for a long time. He's a very versatile defender," Low declared.

The 23-year-old Schalke man has since earned a further five full caps, all of them at right-back, although he is actually a recognised centre-half. However, the competition for a place in central defence is fierce, with the likes of Arsenal's Per Mertesacker, Dortmund's Mats Hummels, and Bayern pair Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber all jockeying for position. Howedes is not remotely troubled by appearing in an unfamiliar position, and that is exactly the flexibility which makes him such a prospect for the future.

Feet firmly on the ground
“I've been waiting for this chance for a long time, and when it came, I took it,” he said. “When I've played, I've shown I'm a member of the national team by right. My job now is to deliver this level of performance consistently whenever the coach gives me the chance to play," he continued, making no secret of his pride at representing his country.

“I see it as a definite advantage that I'm flexible about where I play in the back four. I've filled in at full-back both for my club and in the national team, and I've shown my potential in the position, although my attacking game definitely has to improve," he exclusively told, with a trademark blend of confidence and self-criticism.

Howedes, a U-21 European championship winner in 2009, comes across as extraordinarily mature for his age, and rates as another gem turned out by the highly-praised German youth development system. The powerfully-built 1.87m player boasts none of the silky skills of a Mezut Ozil or Mario Goetze, but his uncompromising and rock-solid toil at the heart of the defence is frequently complemented by daring bursts forward. The young Schalke captain rates as a model for the modern, multifaceted defender, and has plenty of ambition to match.

German sights set high
His unambiguous goal is to feature at UEFA EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. If he makes it, it would be his third shot at a continental trophy: he was a member of the Germany U-17 team beaten by Greece in the 2007 European championship semi-finals, but he lifted the U-21 trophy two years later as a member of the team also including the likes of Ozil, Manuel Neuer and Sami Khedira.

“That was a sensational team, and a large number of the players have now stepped up to the senior side,” Howedes pointed out. “It makes for real harmony in the dressing room, which has to be an advantage looking ahead to next summer's Euro," he added. Many experts and pundits are coming to the same conclusion, as the Germans currently possess a scintillating generation which has climbed the ladder of success together, and appears set to shine on the world stage in the near future.

I've filled in at full-back both for my club and in the national team, and I've shown my potential in the position, although my attacking game definitely has to improve.

Benedikt Howedes, Schalke captain.

The German players are well aware of their potential, and long ago gave up any pretence at hiding their ambition. “The European championship is a very special event in any footballer's career," Howedes told, “and our aim must be to win the trophy. Obviously, Spain and the Netherlands are extremely strong rivals, and other countries have the potential to win too. But we've given proof of our quality in qualifying, and we can go to the tournament with lots of confidence. We want to become European champions."

Bread and butter of the league
However, before his first tilt at major international honours with the senior Germany team, the defender knows he must continue to work hard and consistently for his club, especially as he has a new and enhanced role for the men in royal blue. “I totally identify with Schalke. It's been my club since I was a kid, and that's another very important factor. I'm not the kind of guy who makes a big speech and then silences anyone who disagrees. My method is to maintain a permanent dialogue with my team-mates. Naturally, I'm also trying to set an example and deliver the goods day after day," said the player, explaining his interpretation of the captain's role under coach Huub Stevens.

Howedes, who returned from a ligament injury lay-off last weekend in Schalke's 2-1 league victory away to Hertha Berlin, has made a major contribution to Stevens’ men reaching the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League with a game to spare, and emerging as Bundesliga title contenders after a disappointing 14th-place finish last term. Alongside fierce local rivals Dortmund, Schalke rate as Bayern's chief pursuers in the German top flight, and currently lie third, only three points off leaders Munich.

Modest targets at club level
In the circumstances, the player is surprisingly low-key when asked to outline Schalke's ambitions this season. “Bayern will win the league. After them, it's wide open. Lots of teams are aiming for second to sixth place, and we have the quality to be among that group. We want to stay there or thereabouts for as long as possible, and we'll see where we are at the end of the season. A place in the Champions League would obviously be great, but it's not our target," he insisted.

The 23-year-old has three significant appointments over the next six days. The draw for the next round of the Europa League takes place on Friday, before a top-of-the-table Bundesliga clash with Werder Bremen the following day. On Tuesday next week, Howedes leads out his side in the last 16 of the German Cup, in a potential thriller away to high-flying Borussia Monchengladbach. The Schalke youth product, just the latest in a string of highly promising defensive all-rounders in Germany, could end a fine 2011 by laying the foundations for a very promising 2012.