Gelsenkirchen - Seven points from their first four Rückrunde matches, including a draw at FC Bayern München, attest to improved levels of confidence at FC Schalke 04, who sit fourth in the Bundesliga table after Matchday 21.
'It would be much worse if our opponents were looking forward to playing against us'
Speaking to bundesliga.com, club captain offered his thoughts on the Royal Blues' renewed strength and Wednesday's much-anticipated clash with Real Madrid CF in the UEFA Champions League.
bundesliga.com: Benedikt Höwedes, your team are currently looking extremely disciplined and you're doing exactly what Roberto Di Matteo demands. How difficult is it to keep that up for 90 minutes?
Höwedes: It's got nothing specifically to do with this coach - it's just one of the basics in football that you follow as closely as possible the instructions you're given. That's been working very well for us so far and we're working really well when we don't have possession. We can't rest on our laurels, though. Everybody in the team has to be able to see that we're doing so well now because every single one of us is fulfilling his tactical duties very well and is always ready to go that extra mile.
bundesliga.com: How does Di Matteo involve you as the captain? Is he a very communicative coach?
Höwedes: Being the captain, I'm obviously the first person he talks to when there is any communication between the coaching team and the players. We're often exchanging views. Fundamentally, though, he's a very relaxed, quiet guy with a very strong presence. He follows a very clear philosophy and we've developed a good idea for how to defend compactly and no longer be so susceptible to counter-attacks, like in our game in Gladbach, for example. That's what we want to build on.
bundesliga.com: Can such an experienced player like you still be surprised by a new coach?
Höwedes: Di Matteo is doing a fantastic job and I'm very impressed by how he's done it. I'd be exaggerating if I said I was completely surprised by anything in particular, though. I've been at Schalke for a long time and got to know many different characters with different personalities here.
bundesliga.com: There is just one down side, though, and that is the talk of a 'parking-the-bus tactic'. Regardless of how much that may frustrate the coach, how much does it get to the team?
Höwedes: It doesn't, not at all. I see it as recognition that people know we are uncomfortable opponents. The fact people are saying they'd rather not play Schalke next is something that you've got to work hard to establish. It would be much worse if our opponents were looking forward to playing against us.
bundesliga.de: One tabloid even suggested that Real Madrid and their coach Carlo Ancelotti, your opponents in the UEFA Champions League, should be afraid of Schalke. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but it would still be nice if you could cause Real a few problems after what happened last year.
Höwedes: That's precisely what we aim to do - get at them. We'd all be in the wrong jobs if we raised the white flag before even facing Real. They're undoubtedly one of the best sides in the world and it's incredibly hard to play against them. We're outsiders and we need one or two great nights if we want to survive, but it's not impossible. The key will be to make sure we aren't so naive again, like last season. We were too attack-minded then, especially in the home game because we wanted to show them what we could do. If you do that against Real, then you're almost inevitably going to get taken apart.
'The Bundesliga is still a very even league'
bundesliga.de: Qualifying for the Champions League again is Schalke's goal. Has that become more difficult now there are sides like Wolfsburg, Gladbach and maybe even Augsburg challenging?
Höwedes: Taking Bayern out of the equation, the Bundesliga is still a very even league. There are so many teams who have a chance of challenging up at the top, but we've got a lot of potential in our side and we plan on reaching our goal. We've always managed to do that in recent years.
bundesliga.com: Speaking of Bayern being out of the equation, does that mean Schalke and all the other clubs are not going to have the chance to fulfil their dream of winning the league in the near future?
Höwedes: We can't make the mistake of crowning Bayern as champions before the end of the season, although the fact is they are the overwhelming favourites in every season now. But It would wrong to make ourselves out to be smaller than we are. Along with Wolfsburg, we've proven already this year that you can compete with Bayern.
Interview by Andreas Kötter / Translation by Ben Gladwell