Ahead of Bayern Munich's title six-pointer with Bayer Leverkusen, bundesliga.com sat down with the former's captain for an in-depth conversation…
bundesliga.com: You made your long-awaited comeback at the end of November, how do you feel and where is your performance level at the moment?
Manuel Neuer: "I'd say it all went well, I also didn't know how I'd be when I came back; if I'd known how it would've gone, I'd definitely have taken that. I'm very happy with the way everything's going. Of course, I'm very grateful to the people who have been with me along the way and who have supported me in the difficult time. I'm looking forward to the future, and to everything that comes my way."
bundesliga.com: When you're out injured for such a long time, what can help you through it?
Neuer: "First of all, family and friends, the people close to me, then the medical department and the doctors definitely helped me during that time. It's hard to pick out one person, because it was always the whole team, the doctors from here as well as the external doctors, the surgeons, for example, everyone contributed something to make sure that I could play again, and perform again."
bundesliga.com: You give the impression that you have never been away. How did you manage to hit those levels straight away?
Neuer: "First of all, there are highs and lows in such a difficult time, but it helps an athlete, and a person, to think positively, and to believe that you can make it. That's how I approached it from the first second, when I was on the mountain still, I wasn't thinking negatively, I was thinking that it wasn't so bad, even though it turned out to be a bit worse. The belief in my strength, in my ability to come back, that really helps to achieve that."
bundesliga.com: There were some people who said you wouldn't hit those levels again after the injury. Did that give you extra motivation?
Neuer: "No, I wouldn't say that. The voices can never be bigger than my own standards, I'm the one who was pushing myself the most to reach that level again."
bundesliga.com: How do you assess Bayern's start to the year?
Neuer: "If you put the Bremen game to one side [Bayern lost 1-0 on Matchday 18], they've been games we had to win, and we did. Taking the Bremen game into account though, it's still not enough, but we still have it in our own hands, and that's decisive for us. There are a lot of games left to play, we're dependent on our squad, on the team, to have everyone fit. That's not the case at the moment, unfortunately, but we hope that as many of the injured players as possible return quickly, and then I think we can say that we have the aim of being on top and winning the title."
bundesliga.com: Your defensive line has been changed around a lot because of injuries and rotation. How do the team manage that situation?
Neuer: "We just have to take things as they come, we now have a new player in Eric Dier, who played in the back four for the first time against Augsburg. Rapha Guerreiro isn't a right back, we all know that, but he can be used in a lot of different positions. He played in a position where Philipp Lahm used to play on the left, and it reminded me of that a little bit, he's a very intelligent player. Eric did very well, too, from the start on his first game against Augsburg. We have to keep improving the areas where we are already strong, where we already have a lot of quality in our squad. Minjae [Kim] is still at the Asia Cup, we know that, Nouss [Mazraoui] has been away too, so the club are thinking about which players they can bring in. Sacha Boey is here now, and we're really happy he can support us, can help us. Because of the length of his contract, it was a decision also for the future to bring this player in, and that helps us now as well, of course. When we start getting players back, then we'll have a defensive set-up of players who've played together a lot, and that can bring some routine back."
bundesliga.com: How do you manage that as an organiser; is it even more challenging?
Neuer: "I have to communicate more when we constantly have a new back four. You saw in the past, in the national team, if you're constantly rotating, if you constantly have new players in the back four, then there's no stability. If it's automatic, if you don't need to coach as much. I'm happy to coach, and happy to speak to the players in front of me, but if we all know our jobs and have a stable back four, then that'll be needed less."
bundesliga.com: What drives you to want to win the title this year. What's your motivation?
Neuer: "I can still remember the first title I won with Bayern, it was such a special feeling. A lot of people don't know that feeling, to not win a title when you play for Bayern. Thomas [Müller] and I both know it, from the early years when Jérôme [Boateng] and I moved here, and [Borussia] Dortmund were champions. That was tough for us. A few things happened in that first season, losing in a final [5-2 to Dortmund in the DFB Cup], and going out to Italy in the semi-final [with Germany at UEFA EURO 2012], for example, and you don't want these things to happen. Looking back on that, it's motivated us. We know the successful years and we need to keep this motivation going to avoid the feeling of not being champions. That feeling's deeply present in me, and I don't want to experience it again, that's the biggest motivation to keep winning the Bundesliga. We're also going on a record run and we want to build on that. A a lot of players have contributed to that, starting with Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas. We want to keep this run going."
bundesliga.com: In previous years you've always been the hunted, but at the moment, it's different. The huge game against Bayer Leverkusen is coming up, do you approach this game differently?
Neuer: "I don't think so. Of course, this self-confidence and assuredness is a bit more present when you have a seven-point lead at the top, but we have to take every game as it comes, accept the situation as it is, and always stay focused on the next game. Our homework will always be marked on the next matchday, and that's when we need to pick up the three points. We can't control what happens with Leverkusen, we can only control what we do, and we have to define our own destiny."
Watch: Highlights of the 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture
bundesliga.com: How decisive for the title would a win be on Matchday 21? You've had a number of these occasions in previous years?
Neuer: "It's always a very interesting game in Leverkusen. I think we're suited to these matches. At Bayern we love the big games, and this one against Leverkusen is a big fixture away from home in this second half of the season. I can only say that I'm looking forward to facing this opponent, I'm looking forward to the match in Leverkusen, and we'll be looking to beat them there."
bundesliga.com: How would you describe Leverkusen's football this season?
Neuer: "It's like how Xabi [Alonso] played when he was a player, he gained an insight into a good passing game, playing with a lot of possession, and he has passed this onto the team. He's a player who really enjoyed having the ball and his team have this character, where they want to have the ball, and not chase it. That says a lot about the team, they're very flexible, can vary things, especially in possession and in attacking positions. There are a lot of players who can score goals, or who are involved in goals in some way. They never give up, you can see that by the amount of last-minute goals they score, so they don't lose their self-belief. We know that about them, we also know that we're a team who have the ball a lot and can hurt them, and we have to make the most of that."
Watch: Leverkusen playing the Alonso way
bundesliga.com: A lot of people praise Xabi Alonso's charisma. What makes him stand out?
Neuer: "He comes across in a very positive way, as a player and as a coach he's convinced by the philosophy that he gives to the players, and he has a positive personality. This self-assuredness is passed onto his team too, he's shown that from the very start. He took over the team in a very difficult moment and still showed straight away that things were only going to go in one direction. You noticed immediately that Xabi Alonso and Bayer Leverkusen are just a good fit for each other, and that has an effect on the players."
bundesliga.com: You train in a special pair of glasses. What's that about and how did you come across this method?
Neuer: "First of all, I don't train with special glasses; we train with them. They help us train our reactions and our perception of different game situations, so we can recognise them better and quicker. It's just one of several training methods we use."
bundesliga.com: How do you develop your training methods, what do you pay attention to?
Neuer: "Usually there are coaches' meetings, they discuss what'll be covered on which day, which areas we'll focus on, and then we are informed as to what is happening on the day. I don't develop anything at all."
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