Bremen - FC Bayern München boss Pep Guardiola has laid special plans for him, with the Catalan hardly being the first Bundesliga coach to prepare specifically for the threat of SV Werder Bremen's star midfielder and free-kick maestro Zlatko Junuzovic.
'I'm rarely practicing free kicks'
As one of the Bundesliga's outstanding free-kick takers, Junuzovic's five goals this campaign and all-action style have been instrumental in
's recent unstoppable rise up the table. Prior to league leaders in
to the Weser-Stadion on Matchday 25,
chatted exclusively to the jovial 27-year-old about his set-piece abilities, Bremen's run and his fellow top scorer
Zlatko Junuzovic, you haven’t scored from a free kick for four games now, is there something holding your foot back?
(Laughing.) I haven’t had many opportunities recently! Against Schalke 04, I put one over the bar, against Wolfsburg, the distance was too far. It’s about time for a goal again!
All jokes aside, what makes your free kicks so dangerous? Between Matchday 13 and 20 alone, you scored a staggering four…
First of all, we’re getting free kicks in a good position this season, which is the key. And, at the moment, I have a certain confidence on the field. Even in the run-up, I have the feeling that the ball could go in. Then, with each goal, you get more confident, and eventually it just comes to your foot naturally.
I’ll be honest here: Before this season, I really didn’t know about how good you were at free kicks…
No-one really knew, because I’d never really taken free kicks before!
So did that change because of
’s departure to Wolfsburg?
Exactly. Recently, Aaron was first choice, and before him,
. But you also have to say that we simply weren't awarded free kicks in dangerous areas very often.
Has Werder’s style of play changed then? Is the team more attacking?
We have good movement towards the opposition goal and we often score two or three times a game. Obviously, by doing that, you’re also more likely to be fouled around the penalty area. In total this season we’ve had at least seven promising free kick positions.
Are you keeping statistics?
No, but it’s easy enough to notice. Against Hertha I put my effort just over and onto the roof of the net, I put one over against Schalke and there was too much of a distance to score against Wolfsburg. The other four went in though…
Are free-kicks for you like penalties are for some other players?
gave me some peace of mind. Then during the game against Hannover I knew that it would go in. With every goal, your confidence just gets higher.
'I'm feeling very comfortable at Werder'
Junuzovic: During the season I rarely do, but in pre-season I devote a lot of time to it. In a game itself, I'll take seven or eight corners or free kicks, which is training enough. As a kid, I constantly played football with my dad. Free kicks were a big part of that.
bundesliga.com: Interestingly, you take a good set-piece on the Playstation as well. Have you tried that yourself?
Junuzovic: (Laughing.) No, I can’t play as myself; that feels too weird. But I do, in fact, play a lot of Playstation.
bundesliga.com: On the field, you’re now only three away from the record set by Mario Basler in the 1995/96 season of seven free-kick goals. Is that number achievable for you?
Junuzovic: He [Basler] said in an interview recently that he trusts me to do that. That’s a big honour. Over years and years, he scored a huge number of free kicks and was a genuine legend who achieved so much. I don’t want to compare myself with him. If I'm honest, I don’t think I’ll manage to break his record, but then again, anything can happen in football. If I don’t score, like against SC Freiburg last week, and we win 1-0, then I’m still just as happy.
bundesliga.com: At Werder you have established a high status. After you signed a contract extensions, sporting director Thomas Eichin spoke of the effect of your decision. Can you become a Werder legend like Basler?
Junuzovic: That’s for others to judge. Primarily, I extended my contract because I feel very, very comfortable in the team. I enjoy the recognition and the club's development is really pleasing. I would like to be a part of this going forward and I took the decision independent of our good run of results. Even if the hard times come back again, I belong here, which I like. To me, it’s important to play and take on responsibility. I’m not the type of person who enjoys changing all the time.
'We'll stay up if we beat Bayern'
bundesliga.com: One of the key words you used there was 'catastrophe'. On Matchday 16, Bremen were bottom of the league, and since then you’ve moved to within touching distance of the UEFA Europa League qualification positions. From the outside, such a turnaround is almost incomprehensible…
Junuzovic: Absolutely. As a fan, you might wonder why we didn’t have this confidence, which we’re now playing with, before. In part, I think we were scared of failure. You can see it with teams like Borussia Dortmund and VfB Stuttgart, how much it plays with your mind, and that was exactly the same with us. After nine games, we hadn’t picked up a win and only had four points. After the change of coaches, we won and with that the enjoyment returned. The new coaching team have done a lot right, they’ve given us a sense of fun, it’s relaxed in training, and both are things we have taken into games with us. With the successes, our confidence has only increased, and at the basis of that was our footballing abilities coming to light. Nobody believed in us back then. These experiences, though, are worth their weight in gold and have strengthened us. However, no one is celebrating or thinking of Europe just yet.
bundesliga.com: If you beat Bayern on Saturday, you’ll have 36 points. With that, you certainly won’t have to worry about relegation any more…
Junuzovic: (Laughing.) If we beat Bayern, then let me be the first to say that we’ll certainly have nothing more to do with relegation. We have a lot of respect for Bayern. When we played them during the Hinrunde, we didn’t even have a shot on goal and lost 6-0. We can’t be scared. Back then, we were under huge pressure, but today, our situation is completely different. The stadium will be sold out, we’ll have the fans behind us and perhaps, after playing in the UEFA Champions League, Bayern will be arriving a bit tired. With positivity, anything is possible, and we believe in our chances of winning. Nevertheless, Bayern are on a different level. It’s a game from which we’ll learn a lot.
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Junuzovic: Franco is an exceptional striker who can score a goal from anywhere, just as he showed again against Freiburg. He has everything that you need as a striker: a robust body, a good technique and speed. He’s always relaxed and positive, he laughs every day - and I can’t understand a word he says! (Laughing.) He’s always there in tough times and his positive nature is very important for the team spirit. I can therefore understand completely that the club is going to extreme lengths to make sure he stays.
bundesliga.com: Despite your current form, you have said that European qualification would be too early for Werder. Why is that?
Junuzovic: Everyone wants to play in the Champions League or the Europa League, and obviously we’re trying to end the season as well as possible. But, we have a very, very young team, and most of the players are only in their first or second Bundesliga season. Not too long ago, we were prime candidates for relegation and then a few months later we’re suddenly Europa League hopefuls. There seems to me to be something missing in between. We’re on the right track, but we’re not yet ready to compete at a continental level. Those in charge and we as a team see it like that, and I think the fans acknowledge that as well.
bundesliga.com: Despite that, Bremen are very much in the mix for a Europa League place. In the summer, you’re getting married, which could crown a perfect season…
Junuzovic: (Laughing.) That sounds like a dream. But unfortunately, football doesn’t deal in requests like that. The wedding is already organised. As soon as we cannot theoretically be relegated any more, we’ll set some new targets. Until then, our only goal remains survival.
Zlatko Junuzovic was speaking to Felix Seaman-Höschele