On Tuesday evening, Valencia host Schalke in a UEFA Champions League Round-of-16 first-leg clash at the Mestalla stadium. The Spanish outfit are up to third in La Liga on the back of a sparkling run of form since the turn of the year. Their last league defeat, a 2-0 reverse away to Real Madrid, came back in early December, and boss Unai Emery has masterminded seven victories and two draws since then, as his team rides a wave of new-found confidence.
Meanwhile, times have been tougher for the German club, especially in their domestic league. The Royal Blues are currently treading water in tenth place in the Bundesliga, but coach Felix Magath’s side have thrived in other competitions, winning their Champions League group and battling through to the semi-finals of the German Cup.
The sides last met in the group stages of the 2007/08 Champions League, when Schalke came away from eastern Spain with a point, only to fall to a narrow 1-0 defeat at home in the return. The men from Gelsenkirchen did better in 1996/97 with a 3-1 aggregate victory over Valencia in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals, and a young Schalke fan watched those games, dreaming of a career playing for his beloved Royal Blues. So it turned out. Defender Benedikt Howedes joined the club in 2001 as a 13-year-old, representing them at every youth level before finally making his senior debut in October 2007, in the Champions League.
Howedes is now a firmly-established fixture at centre-half. A European U-21 Championship winner with Germany in 2009, he has yet to earn a first full cap but cannot be far off national coach Joachim Low’s radar. The 22-year-old spoke to FIFA.com about his team’s stubborn defence, the need to keep faith with star strike pairing Raul and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and the passionate Schalke crowd, who could yet play a decisive role in the return leg against Valencia.
FIFA.com: Benedikt, Schalke finished runners-up in the Bundesliga last season, but the going has been much tougher this term. What’s your take on the campaign so far?
Benedikt Howedes: We’re still in the running in three competitions, comfortably emerged from the group phase in the Champions League, and are through to the semi-finals of the cup. That's definitely a positive record, even if we’re definitely underperforming in the Bundesliga. Our efforts have to be directed at improving our position in that respect.
You’re currently eight points off fifth place and a guaranteed spot in Europe next season. That’s a big gap, but by no means insurmountable. What’s your target for the rest of the season in the domestic league?
For the time being, we’re taking each game as it comes. It's important we keep winning, and that’ll keep our focus on the upper reaches of the table. We’re hoping our draw with leaders Borussia Dortmund proves a confidence booster too, because it was a very, very hard-earned point.
Schalke were once again busy in the January transfer window. How do you deal with the numerous comings and goings, and yet more changes to the squad?
The coach is responsible for the make-up of the squad. The really big turnover in personnel was last summer – we’ve had fewer new arrivals this winter than last. It's normal for a team to bring in a few new faces prior to the second half of the season. It’s not a problem.
With so many new players in such a short space of time, how do you generate a team spirit and establish a dressing room hierarchy?
Obviously, after the way we rebuilt the squad last summer, we needed time for a new team to come together. But we have the likes of Manuel Neuer, Raul and Christoph Metzelder, who are all senior figures.
You’re only 22, but you rate among the more experienced group of players at Schalke. How would you assess your role in the team, especially vis-a-vis the newcomers?
I’ve been at the club for more than a decade, so I can obviously tell our new signings all about Schalke and help them with the settling-in process. I just regard myself as part of the team, I’m one component of a greater whole, and I try and help my team-mates as best I can both on and off the field.
The comings and goings at Schalke affected the defence as much as any other area, but you still have the third-best defensive record in the Bundesliga with just 26 goals against, and also in the UEFA Champions League, where you’ve only let in three goals. What’s the reason for this consistency?
At the start of the season, our critics said we’d leak goals, but we stayed patient, got our heads down and worked hard. We have a very stable formation now. And we have Manuel Neuer, the best goalkeeper in the league.
The flip side is that Schalke have only scored 26 top flight goals. Is it easier to form a new defence than a prolific forward line?
This is another area where we need to be patient. Raul and Huntelaar’s quality isn’t up for debate, as they’ve both so often proved. So I’m not concerned. I think we’ll soon be seeing the results we want from the men up front.
Your Champions League form has been far better than in the Bundesliga. Why are Schalke doing so well in Europe?
The Champions League is very special for any player. The standards are higher than in the domestic league, the teams play different football to the Bundesliga, and everyone sets out to win every single game. I think that’s ended up suiting us.
You now travel to Valencia in the Round of 16. What sort of a game are you expecting?
You mustn’t underestimate Valencia. They’re doing well in the Spanish league, and have lots of European experience. But we’ll still go there looking for a result, before booking our place in the quarter-finals at home.
Schalke have yet to lose at home in the Champions League this season. Could that be a decisive factor?
I hope so. Our home support has been fantastic this season, and thanks to our fans, anything’s possible at the Arena.