Unbeaten in eleven competitive outings and the only team to put one over on FC Bayern Munich in the league this season: things have been going exceptionally well for Bayer 04 Leverkusen of late.
Sami Hyypiä's men leapfrogged champions Borussia Dortmund following Sunday's 3-2 derby victory over Rhineland neighbours Fortuna Düsseldorf. Their hard-running, versatile midfielder Lars Bender was in understandably high spirits when he spoke with bundesliga.com after the game.
bundesliga.com: Lars Bender, congratulations on the derby win - a game that went right to the wire. What did you make of it?
Lars Bender: That's what you want from a derby and that's how they should be played. It had everything: a red card, plenty of goals and contested right till the last. We dominated the game, but then they got the equaliser. We delivered the necessary response, battled away and hit back again. We're happy to have won. It was important to follow up the victory in Munich.
bundesliga.com: Bayer are now unbeaten in eleven competitive matches. What makes the team so strong and awkward to play against for your opponents?
Bender: You can see what great spirit there is amongst the players at the moment. Difficult games in Munich and on Wednesday in Bielefeld have gone in our favour. That's what's marked us out this season. We made a slow start, but now we're on track. We're bringing home the points. Of course, there've been some games where we could have done better. Nevertheless, we're in a good position in the table.
bundesliga.com: Is it better for Bayer to assume the role of pursuers, slowly going about their task almost unnoticed, rather than making a full-frontal charge?
Bender: We're not without our faults. You can always improve the finer details. This year there's no way past Bayern. They're in a different league. We saw that again in Hamburg. We want to play in Europe again. We didn't expect the points in the run-up to the Munich game, but we worked hard for them and can now push on.
bundesliga.com: Is fourth place where you see yourselves?
Bender: Like I said, we want to play in Europe. That won't change. You just have to wait and see what happens over the coming weeks and months. If we're there or thereabouts towards the end of the season, then we'll be looking to consolidate our position. But now it's still too early.
bundesliga.com: It seems like there's more strength-in-depth to the squad compared to last season.
Bender: That's right. Having a bigger squad is certainly an advantage. The team now has sufficient cover from back to front, whereas before we were a bit short here and there. We had problems when a few players were out injured. The team's more closely knit. Regardless of who comes in, everyone does their job. That's the most important thing.
bundesliga.com: The team are playing attractive football again. How do you explain that?
Bender: We've certainly made some changes. Going forward, we're playing more adventurously than last year. Because of that we're creating plenty of chances - one of the highest rates in the Bundesliga. We scored three against Düsseldorf, but it could easily have been more. We need to keep on improving, and keep more clean sheets as well.
bundesliga.com: On Thursday, the BayArena plays host to Rapid Vienna in the Europa League. A victory would virtually secure your place in the next stage. How will you approach the game?
Bender: We're playing at home against Rapid, and have already beaten them away. So obviously we aim to win this one too. We musn't take the game too lightly just because we beat them 4-0 in Vienna. That would be ill-advised. It's still European football. You have to be on your guard. But if we focus properly on the task, we can make it happen for ourselves. Then, depending on how the other match goes, we might have made it through to the knock-out stage. That's our goal.
Interview by Tobias Gonscherowski