Leverkusen - 's outstanding form has been a pivotal factor in Bayer 04 Leverkusen's somewhat unexpected ascent to second in the standings at the midway point of the season.
Yet as the 23-year-old Germany midfielder indicated to bundesliga.com in an exclusive interview, reeling in league leaders Bayern Munich is unlikely to be the overriding priority for the Werkself in the months ahead.
bundesliga.com: Lars Bender, does being in second place put extra pressure on the team?
Lars Bender: We're absolutely not bothered - we're only looking at ourselves. We've come a long way and want to remain in that position. Also, I believe we deserve to be where we are. It's great to go into the winter break in second and we want to sustain the momentum of our good performances and aim for the European spots.
bundesliga.com: How do you feel about being labelled Bayern's No1 contenders for the title?
Bender: We're in second place which is why we're not surprised by it. However, I believe Bayern are in a class of their own this season, which they've proved on numerous occasions. We're not looking at Bayern, we're only concentrating on ourselves. That approach has served us well so far.
bundesliga.com: What's the key behind Leverkusen's current success?
Bender: I believe it's our passion which helps us fight until the very last moment of each game. Everyone puts in 100 percent, there's no resting on the pitch.
bundesliga.com: Also, the squad has compensated very well for injuries so far...
Bender: ...which shows that we're moving in the right direction. Unfortunately we've had many players on the sidelines in the first half of the season. However, no matter who comes in, they immediately link up well with the rest of the team. You often don't notice their lack of competitive games. We have many players and function well together.
bundesliga.com: How do you rate 's performances so far?
Bender: He rounded off the first half of the season against Hamburg [scoring twice in the 3-0 win on Matchday 17]. He's performed well many times and this one crowned it in my opinion.
bundesliga.com: Isn't it about time he was recalled to the national side?
Bender: I guess he's a bit unlucky that there are no international games at the moment. Stefan will have to prove himself again. Of course, we're really happy that he's been having such a great run at club level. Who knows, it might even be to our advantage that he can fully concentrate on Leverkusen.
Interview by Markus Hoffmann