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19.01.2018Bundesliga

'We face a really tough challenge'

On Friday morning there was a surprise for members of the media, and the audience watching the live stream on bayer04.de and Facebook of the pre-match press conference ahead of the Hoffenheim game (20 January, 15.30 CET): Bayer 04 media officer Dirk Mesch was accompanied, as usual, by head coach Heiko Herrlich plus the club captain Lars Bender at the Media Centre at the BayArena. And the skipper was there for a good reason: The contract extension to 2021 for the 28-year-old.
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"I quickly decided I wanted to extend my contract: In all the years here, I've always felt there was great trust – above all in the difficult times when I was injured a lot where the club stood behind me and helped me get back on track," said the Bavarian from Rosenheim who joined Leverkusen from 1860 Munich in the summer of 2009. "I want to continue in exactly the same way as I have in all my time here and go forward and help young players to develop and bring the club back to where it should be, - particularly after tribulations of last season - and that's back to the Champions League," explained the Werkself captain who has made 257 appearances for the Black and Reds, scoring 21 goals and providing 25 assists.

And his coach Heiko Herrlich was clearly delighted: "It's a great decision that will benefit us all. It's really important to have players who are loyal to a club and show commitment to that club over the long term. That creates identification and identity as is the case with Stefan Kießling. And that's why we're very happy that Lars has decided to stay with us for even longer."

Herrlich spoilt for choice

Attention moved on to the forthcoming Bundesliga match against this season's Europa League participants from Sinsheim, who are just one point behind Bayer 04 after 18 games in the league. "In contrast to us, Hoffenheim have played in Europe this season – and that's what we're aiming for. They are right behind us in the table and they won't give anything away tomorrow," said Heiko Herrlich in expectation of a closely-fought encounter with a direct rival for a European spot. The boss is unwilling to let himself be distracted by recent praise from the TSG coach Julian Nagelsmann: "Respect and recognition are mutual. It's a good sign that all our opponents take us seriously again. We've worked hard for that but we have to confirm it week after week."

Following the 3-1 defeat at home to FC Bayern in the first Bundesliga match of 2018, there is great desire to clock up the first win of the New Year. "We can't ease off. It's all very tight at the top of the league. No team can afford a drop in form or you lose contact," said Herrlich. At the moment, he has a full squad to choose from. After the final pre-match training session he will face making a decision about his line-up for the match in  Sinsheim. 

"the mother of all missed chances"

Herrlich draws courage and hope from the earlier meeting in the season where the Werkself dominated the game at the BayArena but in the end had to settle for a 2-2 draw after twice being ahead. "This match at the start of the season was the mother of all missed chances. We played really well but unfortunately ended up with the wrong result," said the coach. As a result, he is demanding more efficiency from his players in front of the opposition goal

That will be essential to get a result at the team currently seventh in the top flight. Bayer 04 will have to overcome the strength of TSG at home: In the calendar year 2017, Julian Nagelsmann's team have only suffered one defeat on their own turf. That came at the end of the October with a 3-1 reverse against Borussia Mönchengladbach. Herrlich is absolutely aware of that fact: "We face a really tough challenge. They want the three points just like we do. However, we'll have to produce a top performance." And there was a fitting final word from Lars Bender at the press conference: "Let's go!"

Around 700 Werkself fans will be at the Rhein Neckar Arena to support Bayer 04.

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