Bayer Leverkusen are the side to watch in the Bundesliga at present. The men from the German Rhineland are far and away the best team of the second half of the league programme and currently lie second, only five points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund, who were fully 12 points clear just five games ago.
Now, with five matchdays remaining, Die Werkself (the works team) are poised to claim a direct qualifying spot for next season’s UEFA Champions League, potentially returning to the elite competition they last graced in 2004/05. Nearest rivals Hannover and Bayern Munich are eight and nine points adrift respectively of the side coached by Jupp Heynckes, who will leave Bayer this summer to take the vacant Bayern helm.
In a twist of fate typical of football, Bayer now travel to face Bayern in the Bavarian capital this Sunday. The home side are desperate for a win as they scramble to present Heynckes with Champions League football next term, but a first victory in Munich for Leverkusen since 1989/90 would enable Don Jupp’s current club to up the pressure on one-time runaway leaders Dortmund.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Bayer captain Simon Rolfes about the situation in the Bundesliga and Sunday’s meeting in Munich, his role in the Germany national team, and how becoming a father has affected his game.
FIFA.com: Congratulations on an excellent league campaign to date. How would you assess Bayer’s progress so far?
Simon Rolfes: We were outstanding up to the mid-season break, and we’re currently the best team in the second half of the season. I think we’ve proved we have a stable, competitive team, with the quality to match our ambitions. We can be very satisfied.
You’re currently five points behind leaders Borussia Dortmund. What’s going to happen over the remaining five matches?
Obviously, we’re aiming to win our remaining games. Of course, Dortmund will be saying exactly the same thing. Let’s see where it all ends up.
On the other hand, Hannover and Bayern are hoping to make the most of any Leverkusen slip-ups. How much is it now a matter of mental strength and coping with pressure, looking both at Dortmund and the teams chasing you?
Dortmund and ourselves have one thing in common: keeping our rivals at bay is entirely in our own hands. So here in Leverkusen, we’re not taking any notice of the other teams. If we get the results we want, Hannover and Bayern can do nothing. But we’re definitely strong and confident enough to defend our advantage. And if we do win all our matches, we could even extend our lead.
This weekend, you travel to face Bayern. Bayer last beat Munich in the Bundesliga back in 2004/05, and last won away to Munich in 1989/90. How are you approaching Sunday’s match?
We’re going there to win. And I wouldn’t say Bayern are our bogey team, because we’ve not lost to them in the Bundesliga since May 2009, so why should we be having negative thoughts? We go into the game with as much of a chance as they have.
Leverkusen last appeared in the UEFA Champions League back in 2004/05. What would returning to Europe’s top club competition mean to the club?
It would mean our pre-season assessment of what we can achieve with the current team was correct. Qualifying for the Champions League was always our target, and we’re well on course to succeed.
You’ve personally fought your way back into the team after a long lay-off with a serious injury. How hard was it for you as you battled to regain fitness?
For a pro, it’s always hard when you’re not out there on the field with the other guys. Instead, you disappear every day to the sports rehab unit while your team-mates are out there working with the ball. But on the other hand, you can do a lot in terms of personal development during a time like that. It’s a form of motivational training, for your desire and ambition. I never lost sight of my goal, although it was occasionally difficult to keep motivating myself over and over again. But I was looked after incredibly well – all credit to the staff, who are totally responsible for my comeback at the highest level.
Robin Dutt is coming in from Freiburg as Bayer Leverkusen’s new head coach this summer. What are you expecting from the new boss?
I’m not concerned about that right now. The absolutely priority is to make it into the Champions League. We have to be totally focused and not get distracted by things which haven’t even happened yet. I really don’t like taking the third step before the second.
Turning briefly to the German national team, it’s a while since you’ve received a call-up. Are you disappointed not to be a fixture in Joachim Low’s squads?
Obviously, I’d have been delighted to be part of it all again. I think I’ve been putting in consistently strong performances in recent weeks, but at the end of the day, what counts for me is going to UEFA EURO 2012. Until then, I have to keep following the right course – and it’s a rocky road sometimes, for me and for many others too.
There’s a lot of competition for holding midfield roles in the Germany squad: you’re up against Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Sven Bender, for example. How do you see your future for Germany?
I want to play in Ukraine and Poland, that’s for sure.
Finally, a more personal question: you’ve been a father for nearly a year now and have a little daughter. Has the experience changed you personally, and has it affected your game at all?
As a father, you definitely look at certain things a different way. You learn to set priorities, and I reckon there are moments where it’s easier to find tranquillity or calm. You reassess your values to a certain extent. I think that can have a very positive effect out on the field. I think you somehow have more poise and authority.