bundesliga

Nico Schlotterbeck and Freiburg combining to create great expectations

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It's been quite a year of coming of age for Freiburg defender Nico Schlotterbeck, and with a season that still promises so much for the Black Forest club, there could yet be a glittering prize at the end of it all for the boy from Waiblingen.

Ever present for a Germany side that went all the way to UEFA European Under-21 Championship glory in Ljubljana last June, the central defender returned to Freiburg brimming with confidence ahead of what has turned out to be a thus far memorable campaign for Christian Streich's men.

After spending the 2021/22 campaign on loan at Union Berlin, a season in which injury limited him to 16 Bundesliga appearances, Schlotterbeck's return to his parent club could not have gone better and he has missed out on just two top-flight games this term, putting in a plethora of impressive performances that have led to some of European football's giants taking note.

Put it this way, if you have the man they call 'Schlotti' in your Bundesliga Fantasy Team this season, you're set fair for a windfall of points. Along with helping the Baden-Württemberg based side boast the division's second-meanest defence after reigning champions Bayern Munich this season, Schlotterbeck has weighed in with four goals, the last of which was a thunderous half-volley to seal a late, late 3-2 victory against Wolfsburg on Matchday 26.

The result kept Freiburg level on points with fourth-placed RB Leipzig - and Hoffenheim in sixth - and in the hunt for what would be a first-ever appearance in the UEFA Champions League. And, lest we forget, the side that graces the Europa-Park Stadion are also aiming to reach the DFB Cup final, with a semi-final encounter against Hamburg set for for 19 April.

Watch: Schlotterbeck's stunning winner vs. Wolfsburg 

"From a sporting point of view, it was the best year I've had so far," Schlotterbeck said in an interview with Sport1. "I celebrated a title at international level for the first time with the Under-21s, I reached the Conference League with Union [Berlin] and now I finally have my regular place in Freiburg, which I've been striving for for two or three years, and thanks to my performances I was also called up to the senior national team, which was a huge dream."

Indeed, the call from Germany senior coach, Hansi Flick, arrived last September and, although Schlotterbeck has yet to make his senior Germany bow, he was part of the set-up, taking everything in on five occasions during the team's successful push for 2022 FIFA World Cup qualification. "It was a big dream of mine," the defender said of his call-up. "As a child you always watched the national team. When the coach called me, I was just so happy."

A first appearance for Germany now seems inevitable, particularly given the heroics with which Schlotterbeck has been performing this season, both as part of a three-man defence and on the left side of a defensive pairing in a 4-4-2. A colossal presence bringing the ball forward, Schlotterbeck boasts an 84.4 per cent pass completion rate and has managed an admirable 30 shots on goal. He ranks sixth on the list of players with most tackles won (286) and is in the top ten in terms of successful aerial duels (90). It's also interesting to note that in the two Bundesliga games Schlotterbeck missed (against Arminia Bielefeld and Borussia Dortmund), Freiburg picked up just one point and shipped a total of seven goals.

An U21 European champion with Germany, Schlotterbeck is in the mix for a first senior cap. - Martin Rose/Getty Images

"I notice it in myself that, two or three years ago, I wasn't as far along as I am now; I took the next step," Schlotti explained of his incredible improvement. "I know that I can play football well and how good I can still get," he added. "I have a coach at SC who gives me a lot of confidence. The coach's work pays off after a few years that you've been there and the boys are getting better and better. The team stayed together like it was last year, and that's why we're so successful at the moment."

Part of a famous footballing family - Uncle Niels was also a professional footballer - Nico is the younger brother of Keven Schlotterbeck, also a defender at Freiburg. Describing the situation of sometimes having to compete for a place in the starting XI with his sibling as "not that easy" - places in Streich's three-man defence being limited - the junior Schlotterbeck is nonetheless thrilled that both have made it this far in their Bundesliga careers.

"As small children we often played in the garden and had the aim of becoming professional footballers, like a lot of little kids at that age," Nico said. "Very few people make it into professional football, and the fact that we both made it was something incredible."

Band of brothers: Keven and Nico Schlotterbeck (l-r.) are hoping for a celebratory end to 2021/22. - Hahne /Eibner-Pressefoto via www.imago-images.de/imago images/Eibner

Describing the first time he had his brother Keven lined up together for Freiburg, against Werder Bremen back in April 2019, as a career highlight, Nico added that it was a moment that brought the brothers even closer together. "I saw up in the stands how proud my parents were when we took to the field in front of a sold-out stadium: that was something very special. That will bind us together for the rest of our lives," the defender continued.

Schlotterbeck has also struck up a strong rapport with the rest of his current teammates, who hold the one-time Karlsruher U17 player in high esteem. "Schlotti combines real footballing class with great tackling and plenty of skills," Nicolas Höfler said of his defensive partner. "It's especially important for us to know you can [be confident in] a central defender in those one-on-one situations," Höfler added.

When you add immense strength to the mix - Schlotterbeck recently said that he lifts weights six days a week - the 22-year-old represents a tremendous asset. After scoring his fourth goal of the campaign in spectacular fashion last weekend, the centre-back explained, I've never experienced such an explosion of emotions." Coach Streich, meanwhile, added of the strike, "With his quality, you can expect that."

For Freiburg and Nico Schlotterbeck, great expectations abound in a season where both are creating some spellbinding storylines.