Munich – Bayer 04 Leverkusen's excellent season to date, both at home and on the international stage, is down in no small part to the outstanding form of Ömer Toprak in the heart of the defence.
Ahead of the second half of what has arguably been his best season as a professional to date, the 24-year-old German-born Turkey international spoke with bundesliga.com about the exciting new prospects acquired by Leverkusen over the winter, the challenges that lie ahead for die Werkself over the coming months, as well as his own personal targets.
bundesliga.com:Ömer Toprak, Leverkusen are back from the winter training camp in Portugal. How did that go?
Ömer Toprak: Very well. It was tough, and we put in a lot of good, focused work.
bundesliga.com: What were your first impressions of new signings Julian Brandt and Seung-Woo Ryu?
Toprak: You can see they're both quality players, but we can't be expecting too much of them yet. Julian Brandt's only 17. Ryu's a quite different kind of player - we haven't got anyone like him in our squad. He made a good impression at the training camp as well. We're glad to have both lads on board.
bundesliga.com: What kind of player is Ryu?
Toprak: He's a small, really nifty playmaker. We sometimes jokingly call him “little Kagawa” in training.
bundesliga.com: Which is actually high praise...
Toprak: For sure. That's the kind of player we've been short of. We'll see how he progresses.
bundesliga.com: Towards the end of last year, it seemed that the other teams were adapting better to Leverkusen's game and you were having particular problems with deep-lying opponents. That's something you might be faced with more often now.
Toprak: That's true, it was evident in the last two games against Frankfurt and Bremen. But we started working on a few measures to counteract that at the training camp. We need to keep working on those strategies, keep improving and we'll see how it goes. We're well prepared, anyway.
bundesliga.com: You earned a lot of praise yourself for your performances over the first season-half. Do you think you can get even better?
Toprak: Absolutely. It would be a sad case of affairs if I'd already hit my peak at 24. I've got more potential, and so does the whole team. And it's easier for each individual to realise it when we perform well as a team.
bundesliga.com: Your colleague Stefan Kießling told kicker that his main aim in 2014 is to win the DFB Cup. What targets have you set for the coming year?
Toprak: First of all I want to stay fit and healthy. Obviously, we're looking to win something this season and that's not going to be easy in the Bundesliga or the Champions League. The quickest route to a title is the DFB Cup and we've a real chance there. We're , with a home game against 1. FC Kaiserslautern to come. It'll be a tough game, but we have to be satisfied with the draw. A win would take us into the last four and we've got a young squad, with a lot of hungry players who've never won a senior title. At the end of the day, we want to get our hands on a trophy, that's why we play football.
bundesliga.com: As far as the Bundesliga goes, is second in the table the best Leverkusen can hope for this season?
Toprak: Bayern are playing in a league of their own at the moment, but you never know in football. We've done a good job of just focusing on ourselves so far and trying to unfold our own game. We want to maintain that over the rest of the season. We're concentrating on our own affairs, not labelling ourselves as the FC Bayern hunters. We'll keep approaching every game in a meticulous and focused manner.
bundesliga.com: First up for Bayer in 2014 is a trip to your former club, SC Freiburg. Is that still a bit of a special game for you?
Toprak: It certainly is. I still have a lot of friends in Freiburg. It was a good time, that was where I turned professional and the coach, Christian Streich, was a very important mentor in my early career. I'm looking forward to the game and once it's over, I'll have my fingers crossed for Freiburg for the rest of the season.
Interview: Tobias Gonscherowski