Defender Benedikt Höwedes and midfielder Nabil Bentaleb consider Schalke’s next UEFA Europa League opponents and ponder the possibility of emulating the ‘Euro Fighters’ that won the 1997 UEFA Cup.
On the quarter-final against Ajax …
Benedikt Höwedes: They’re a big name in international football with a great history. In terms of distance, they’re quite close so a lot of fans will be able to go. We’re up against a talented young team, but we’ll give 100% effort to play as well as we can. We need to play well in the first leg in Amsterdam to put ourselves in the best possible position for the return.
Nabil Bentaleb: We know they have quality, and they always have young, talented players, so it will be a tough match. We have to be at our best. First of all, we have to go away and get a result – the least we can do is get a draw. We’re going to go for the win, but if we can’t do that, we hope we don’t lose. Then we’ll play the decisive leg at home. To be honest, I wanted to play Man. United, but hopefully we can play them in the next round.
On what coach Markus Weinzierl has brought to Schalke …
Bentaleb: As a team, he tells us to be strong defensively and not be passive – to defend moving forward. It’s a pretty attacking style of play. From a personal point of view, he just tells me: “Be strong defensively, and just be free when you go forward.” He’s giving us that freedom, that creativity to go and create something for the team. And it shows he believes in us.
Höwedes: I think we’ve made good progress this year, even if our Bundesliga position doesn’t reflect that. We’ve had incredibly bad luck with injuries this season, so we’ve had to adjust. We played for a long time with a back three but we’re now playing a back four. We try to play with bravery and passion, and at certain times we try to play counterattacking football and switch play quickly. We need to continue to refine that and show our quality in this tie.
On Schalke’s victory over Internazionale in the 1997 UEFA Cup final …
Höwedes: I was fairly young at the time but of course we all saw the images from when we won the match and brought the trophy home. That was one of the greatest achievements in our history, if not the greatest, and now we’re in a good position in the Europa League. You still hear that team’s ‘Euro Fighters’ mantra – “die Null muss stehen” [must keep a clean sheet] – quite a lot. That team achieved what is still the club’s biggest ever trophy success, and you’re constantly reminded of it, but this team have the chance to achieve something great now. To do that we need to perform.
Bentaleb: Now we’re in the quarter-finals, everyone is talking about 1997. It was such an amazing thing for the club and for the whole city. We try not to think too much about what they did, because now it’s a new generation – it’s different and we have to show what we can do.