Gelsenkirchen - The first half of the Bundesliga season hasn't quite gone to plan for seventh-placed FC Schalke 04, but club captain Benedikt Höwedes has issued a warning to the rest of the league ahead of the season's imminent restart by expressing his wish to see the team return to the league's top positions.
Added spice to Wolves clash
"We want to climb another few places," the Germany centre-back said defiantly at the Royal Blues' Qatar winter training camp. "In Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfL Wolfsburg we have two tough teams as our closest rivals, so it's important we start well and get some good results."
Schalke kick off 2014 with a trip to struggling Hamburger SV on 26 January, and as difficult a game that will be, Höwedes singled out the following week's outing as one of huge significance. "Against Wolfsburg we're at home to a direct rival relatively early on in the year, so winning that game would therefore be twice as important."
Having missed the last two matches of the Hinrunde suffering from a thigh injury and trained individually in Qatar, Höwedes himself is now raring to go. "It'd be if I could come back against Hamburg but I shouldn't rush things," the 25-year-old said. "It's difficult to say when I'll be back, in fact, as I've only done light training so far, without any sprints or tackles."
Room for improvement
Speaking of his side's efforts during the winter break, however, Höwedes seemed very much impressed with the progression made by his team-mates since the turn of the year. "I think we've laid the foundations for a successful second half of the season," he said, referring to a hard-fought 3-2 friendly win over Eintracht Frankfurt and a generally productive time in Qatar.
However, Schalke claimed just two wins from their last five Bundesliga games before the break, and having already five defeats in the current campaign, as well a DFB Cup exit at home to 1899 Hoffenheim, improvements must be made. "We have to be tactically disciplined and operate as a compact unit," Höwedes claimed. "It's about hard work. We have to work our socks off for each other."
Boost on personnel front
There is much promise for the Gelsenkirchen-based club in the Rückrunde however, with a UEFA Champions League last 16 tie against nine-time European Champions Real Madrid to come next month, as well as the return of a few familiar faces.
Kyriakos Papadopoulos made a long-awaited comeback from injury in December, already a huge boost for the squad, and with Netherlands striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is also nearing a return. Slowly but surely, the spine of what is no doubt a talented team is beginning to become discernible once more, and Höwedes believes Schalke are a team to be reckoned with. "I'm delighted we can count on those guys again," he said.