A rock at the back for Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Turkish international Ömer Toprak tells us about his defensive philosophy before the tie with Club Atlético de Madrid.
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Composure is a term often applied to the best defenders. Yet German-born Turkish international Ömer Toprak has shown his quality in both penalty areas in recent UEFA Champions League campaigns.
Solid at the back for Bayer 04 Leverkusen, with his two good feet and a useful turn of pace, the centre-half also displayed a deft touch to score a winning goal against Real Sociedad de Fútbol last season.
This term, meanwhile, the 25-year-old started all six group games, and tells Champions Matchday he relishes "playing against the best teams and best players". Even if a late red card on matchday six means he will have to wait until the second leg to face Club Atlético de Madrid.
UEFA.com: What is it like walking out at the BayArena on a UEFA Champions League night?
Ömer Toprak: UEFA Champions League matches are something special. The whole build-up is different to a Bundesliga match. When you hear the anthem it's a dream for anyone – you have goosebumps.
UEFA.com: How far can Leverkusen go in this competition?
Toprak: We have a lot of quality in the team and we want to go as far as possible. We all want to play as many UEFA Champions League matches as we can. You're playing against the best teams and the best players. That's what we all want.
UEFA.com: How important has Hakan Çalhanoğlu, your team-mate for club and country, been to your success at Leverkusen?
Toprak: He is a very important player for us. He might be known for his free-kicks and set pieces, but that's not the whole story. He played as a defensive midfielder against FC Zenit in St Petersburg and did a great job, you could see then that he can fight and win one-on-ones. But every player is important, we have a lot of great individuals, and we have to make sure we show that as a team on the pitch.
UEFA.com: How have the Leverkusen players adapted to coach Roger Schmidt's change in philosophy?
Toprak: We have been doing well in the UEFA Champions League, we were the better team in all the matches we've played. It's a different kind of football, we control games more, and we are the team that plays.
UEFA.com: Schmidt likes to play attacking football. How does that suit you as a defender?
Toprak: That means we defend higher, which for me means being more careful and having to try to defend offensively and anticipate a lot – but also you get into a lot of one-on-ones. You need to be able to pass well too. If you defend ten or 15 metres in front of goal, the opposing forwards are closer to your goal. If we stay higher, there is more distance and you can defend very aggressively. There are so many players in the UEFA Champions League who can score a goal from nothing, so if we keep them away from our goal we concede fewer goals.
UEFA.com: How do you gauge the correct distance between you and your centre-back partner?
Toprak: You have to communicate a lot. For me personally, the more I communicate and give advice to my team-mates, the more I am in the game and the more awake I am. If you defend and press so high, then you need to make sure you keep control of things.
UEFA.com: How important is it for a centre-back to be able to pass the ball?
Toprak: Very. In training we have a lot of passing exercises, you need to pass the ball well and receive it well. The game is faster, so you try to improve in training and improve personally.
UEFA.com: If you could play alongside any centre-back, past or present, who would it be?
Toprak: Well, I am very happy with my centre-back partners here. We get along well on and off the pitch. It's always a joy to play alongside them. There are centre-backs you follow a bit and try to see what they do in certain situations. In the Bundesliga, for example, there are centre-backs such as Mats Hummels or Jérôme Boateng – I look at how they do things.
Then on the international stage there is Sergio Ramos, Thiago Silva and so on. There are many of them, you just have to find what you want to look at, as every team plays differently and defends differently. So you look at them and try to see what they do and how they solve situations, so you can improve yourself.
UEFA.com: Who has been your toughest opponent?
Toprak: The strongest so far have been [Zlatan] Ibrahimović, [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo, that's for sure. Those three players are really very dangerous. They have great quality and it is just impossible to have them under control for 90 minutes. That is why they are the absolute world stars.