RB Leipzig's Josko Gvardiol is back to test his defensive attributes in the Bundesliga arena when Matchday 16 kicks off in Saxony, and ahead of his side's huge test against Bayern Munich, the Croatian hero gave bundesliga.com the lowdown.
A World Cup bronze medal winner with Croatia, DFB Cup winner with Leipzig and best friend to lover of all things Croatian Dani Olmo, the deadly central defender Gvardiol is all set to face the mighty Bayern at the Red Bull Arena under the Friday night lights. bundesliga.com caught up with the 20-year-old whose reputation within the game is soaring to ever new heights.
bundesliga.com: Some say Friday's game against Bayern is a chance to make a statement while reducing the gap between the teams to three points. What can we expect?
Gvardiol: “I'd agree with that. I have already said that. Now we're six points behind Bayern, although Freiburg are also still ahead of us. It's a great chance; we play at home. We have the opportunity to win for [only] the second time against Bayern and to get closer to them. We know that they have a good team in terms of quality and that they don't give up points easily. However, we are capable and ready for big things. From the first to the last minute, we have to go full throttle and give the maximum in this game.”
Gvardiol: “I've always said that Bayern are somehow above all of us. That's how it turned out, although I believe in our team and in our strength and I know that when we're really on top of our game, it's not easy for anyone to play against us; not even the world-class teams. Bayern are in a good position, they know what to do, they have this power to control the ball, they are full of confidence. However, I think we can stand up to them. We have quality as well. I said that I would have preferred to play against them before the break but now we have the chance and I would hate to throw it away.”
bundesliga.com: Musiala is a young player, like you. What do you think of his development? Will he be the next world star to emerge from the Bundesliga?
Gvardiol: “I'm pleased for him, especially because he's a year younger than me. There's also [Jude] Bellingham. These are guys of whom I'm convinced are going to do great things and it makes me happy to see this youth conquer the Bundesliga. I think the sky is the limit for them. I think there's still a lot of room for them to progress and become world class at some point.”
bundesliga.com: Leipzig are still fighting in all three competitions. What goals have you and the team set yourselves?
Gvardiol: "As I always say, in football everything is possible. [Croatia] showed that at the World Cup. We just somehow got through the group and ended up third. I don't have any goals for the season, the only goal is that we all stay healthy until the end of the season. We're going step by step. I don't want to look too far into the future. We now have the game against Bayern, we'll take it step by step. In the Champions League we have [Manchester] City [in the last 16], where we have to prepare well mentally. In the [DFB] Cup, we'll defend our title from last year and that's it.
I'm looking forward to the game with City, of course. We are all looking forward to it. That's why we play football, so we can play against the best teams in Europe. However, we have to be smart going into this game. There is still a bit of time left, we just have to prepare well - physically and mentally – and be smart about our task.”
Watch: The best of Gvardiol in the Bundesliga
bundesliga.com: You mentioned the World Cup. What impressions have you taken with you from what was your first appearance at the tournament?
Gvardiol: “I have to say that we young players are not yet aware of what we achieved with the Croatia national team yet. When I was in Doha, I didn't even begin to imagine that so many Croatian fans and people would come to celebrate the bronze medal in Zagreb. Only when we landed in Zagreb did I realise how much people love us and what a small nation we are, but we all stick together.”
bundesliga.com: What does it mean to you to be part of the national team at such a young age?
Gvardiol: “If we're honest, I couldn't have imagined being surrounded by so many great players at the European Championship and now I've also been able to experience this World Cup in Qatar. I'm very happy because of the third place and that I got to share the dressing room with so many world-class players.”
bundesliga.com: What did you learn as a young player from experienced national team colleagues like Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida?
Gvardiol: “We have our leader and captain Luka Modric, from whom everyone can learn something. As a defender, I have Lovren and Vida, from whom I would like to learn leadership. There are many more experienced players from whom I can pick up things. I'm happy to come to the national team every time and not only to win with them, but also to learn something.”
bundesliga.com: You have to sacrifice a lot on the way to becoming a professional footballer. Who supported you the most along the way?
Gvardiol: “Now, when I look back, only a few from my year made it. You have to make a lot of sacrifices and you have to dedicate yourself to the sport to the maximum. Of course, I had the support of my father, the whole family and of course [my clubs]. When they see that you can become something, they give you the maximum support and push you forward.”
bundesliga.com: Who was your idol in your youth?
Gvardiol: “When I was little, it was [Sergio] Ramos. Then when I played in defence and became a centre-back, it was still Ramos. There's also [Lionel] Messi, of course; just a football genius. Now that I'm older, I don't worry about those things. I'm happy that I'm playing against a lot of these great players. Of course, I am focused on myself and my team and we are trying to get better and better.”
bundesliga.com: What type of person are you?
Gvardiol: “You know what? It's hard for me to describe myself. What I hear from Dani [Olmo] is that I'm a funny guy: I like to laugh, I like to joke with my teammates. When we work, I work, I'm focused to the maximum. That's it. A likeable, funny boy. Always with a smile. That's how it is.”
bundesliga.com: Your best friend is Dani Olmo. What do you like about him and why do you get along so well? Is that from your time in Zagreb when you were growing up together?
Gvardiol: “Dani is really a super guy. It's not just the Croatian language that connects us. He's always happy when [I'm back home] because he likes to speak Croatian and likes Croatia. The language, the people there, and Dinamo [Zagreb] as well. He often tells me how much he regrets not playing for Croatia, although Spain is of course his home. We spend a lot of time together and there are a few other players, we have our own group, we get along great, we're young. I'm happy that we have a good team here.”
bundesliga.com: With you on board, Leipzig celebrated the greatest success in the club's history, winning the DFB Cup in 2022. How wonderful was that moment in Berlin?
Gvardiol: “Somehow that whole cup run - all the way to the final - went by so fast. When we were in the semi-finals, we realised that we only had one more step to the final. It wasn't easy to play at home against Union Berlin [in the last four] and then of course in the final against Freiburg. I sat on the bench because I had a small injury. In the end, it turned out to be a big one and I had to have surgery. However, all in all, [the final] was something indescribable. We even ordered replicas of the trophy. Of course, it was the first title in the club's history and we will remember it forever.”
bundesliga.com: How is it that you are you developing so well at Leipzig?
Gvardiol: “I would say that they know how to work with young players. That is, of course, if the player is willing to work. There are also players who are sometimes not ready. I dedicated myself fully to the work since I arrived. I have absorbed everything and I have worked on myself. I think there is still room for me to improve and I can get better.”
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