Admired for their defensive steel – with five clean sheets recorded en route to finishing second in UEFA Europa League Group K – Bayer 04 Leverkusen have also shown enough in attack to be placed third in the Bundesliga. A key feature of their forward play this season has been long-serving Gonzalo Castro, now flourishing in a central or right midfield role having previously been capped by Germany at right-back.
With Leverkusen's next test coming at home to SL Benfica in the UEFA Europa League round of 32 on Thursday, the 25-year-old Castro spoke to UEFA.com about what should be a "great tie", the value of home advantage and his unwavering desire to succeed.
UEFA.com: Benfica are unbeaten in the Portuguese Liga but fell just short in their UEFA Champions League group. What do you make of them?
Gonzalo Castro: They will be really tough opponents. The Portuguese league, overall, is probably not one of the top four in Europe. The top teams are always involved in Europe, though, including the Europa League. I think it has all the ingredients to be a great tie.
UEFA.com: Leverkusen are unbeaten at home in the UEFA Europa League. What's the plan for this game?
Castro: We want to make the most of our strength at home. We have shown on a number of occasions this season that we are an accomplished side in front of our own fans. I think Benfica will have a great deal of respect for us. Ideally we'll win the game and keep a clean sheet but even if we don't manage that, everything is still possible. We've played well away from home as well.
UEFA.com: As a player, do you feel the UEFA Europa League has made up ground on the UEFA Champions League?
Castro: Yes, there are a lot of really good teams involved and I include Benfica and ourselves in that bracket. In terms of the group stage there is a big difference between the Europa League and the Champions League. Now though, with the additional teams from the Champions League included in the knockout stage, the Europa League is brimming with quality.
UEFA.com: What do you think your team are capable of?
Castro: We have shown on the European stage as well as domestically that we can compete with top teams like Chelsea, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund. Of course we would need to have a perfect day to beat the biggest teams and I'm not saying that we should reach the final. Let's wait and see. We are taking it one game at a time and we want to show ourselves in the best possible way.
UEFA.com: Why do you think you have flourished in a more attacking role this year?
Castro: I think this position suits my game more than right-back, which is where I used to play. It's obvious that you can get more involved and that you find yourself in more match-winning situations, which in turn attracts more attention.
UEFA.com: What are your goals for the next 12 months? A return to the national team perhaps?
Castro: My focus is Leverkusen. There's not much point getting caught up in other things. I just want to perform well for the club. I can't influence anything else. I've never known a player to talk his way back into the national team.
©UEFA.com 1998-2017. All rights reserved.