VfB Stuttgart's Benjamin Pavard has beaten Borussia Mönchengladbach's Denis Zakaria and RB Leipzig's Konrad Laimer to be win the Bundesliga Rookie Award by TAG Heuer for February. Allow bundesliga.com to introduce the candidates...
BENJAMIN PAVARD(VFB STUTTGART)
The 21-year-old has been ever-present for Stuttgart this season, playing every single Bundesliga minute and helping the Swabian outfit adjust to life back in the top flight. With Monaco's Djibril Sidibe injured, Pavard made his senior international debut against Wales in Paris on 10 November and having continued in good form since then, could be in line for a surprise summer trip to Russia. "The club never tells me if I've been pre-selected. I just saw the list when it was published. The problem was that I was in my German class. Afterwards, the whole team ate together, and I saw my telephone kept ringing. I said to myself, 'What's going on?'" said Pavard, who has 15 Under-21 caps.
Watch: Pavard: Rookie nominee!
DENIS ZAKARIA(BORUSSIA MÖNCHENGLADBACH)
Pavard, who joined Stuttgart from Lille in 2016, has helped VfB Stuttgart to arguably their best month of the season so far. In February, under new head coach Tayfun Korkut, the newly-promoted side took 10 points from four games, conceding only one goal and keeping three clean sheets. Pavard himself won 68 per cent of his challenges, committing only two fouls across the 360 minutes of action. His versatility is what makes the young defender stand out, as with the flexible Stuttgart defensive line which can set-up with four or three men, Pavard is integral and can operate centrally or on the right.
He has been likened to Granit Xhaka, Paul Pogba and Patrick Vieira, but what does Borussia Mönchengladbach's new midfield dynamo Denis Zakaria make of the illustrious comparisons? "I know all about the Xhaka talk, but I'm not giving it much thought. I've also been compared to [Patrick] Vieira and [Paul] Pogba – two more players I really respect and, in a way, see as role models. When I watch videos of them I think I'd like to play that way. What's important, though, is that people recognise I'm not trying to copy anyone. I'm trying to be the best Zakaria I can possibly be."
Watch: Zakaria: Rookie nominee!
KONRAD LAIMER(RB LEIPZIG)
In Gladbach’s solitary win over Hannover, Zakaria was a midfield dynamo alongside goalscorer Christoph Kramer. He won 12 of his 19 challenges, as well as holding a pass completion rate of 92 per cent. But team always comes first for the Swiss international, especially in difficult times. "When the team is in such a situation, I first question myself. I can still do more and that's what I work for every day." Only Matthias Ginter, Lars Stindl, Jannik Vestergaard and Nico Elvedi have played more minutes than the Bundesliga newcomer, and with three months of the season to play, Zakaria’s name is one that will be a constant in the Gladbach line-up until the final whistle of 2017/18 blows in May.
Laimer is one of a host of current Leipzig players to have joined from sister club Red Bull Salzburg, along with Peter Gulacsi, Dayout Upamecano, Benno Schmitz, Bernardo, Stefan Ilsanker and Keita himself. He arrived in Germany with an impressive reputation as a shrewd and aggressive holding midfielder, who was named the Austrian Bundesliga's Player of the Season for 2016/17 after helping Salzburg secure a third straight league and cup double. Even at 20, he had no shortage of offers from the Bundesliga and beyond, but the Austria Under-21 captain clearly saw his future in Saxony, where he would have the opportunity to work with fellow compatriot Ralph Hasenhüttl and former Salzburg sporting director Ralf Rangnick.
Watch: Laimer: Rookie nominee!
Laimer has played all but one game at right-back, with injury ruling him out of Matchday 24's shock defeat at home to Cologne. During the Hinrunde, Leipzig won 43 per cent of their games with Lukas Klostermann at right-back, and that figure has improved to 57 per cent since Laimer took over in the Rückrunde. One day, Laimer will surely get his chance to show what he can do in Gerrard's position - especially when Keita leaves for Anfield - but for now, he is demonstrating his flexibility and growing importance in Hasenhüttl's team. As the club battle to return to the UEFA Champions League next season, the 20-year-old Austrian is definitely putting the RB in Leipzig.