With Augsburg gearing up to play Liverpool, defender Ragnar Klavan talks about their adaption to UEFA competition, Jürgen Klopp and how Louis van Gaal made him a centre-back.
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Augsburg had not even played in the German top flight until 2011 but they are now gearing up for a UEFA Europa League round of 32 tie with Liverpool.
Having spent most of their history negotiating Germany's second and third divisions, Augsburg reached the Bundesliga in 2011/12 and in only their fourth season secured fifth place and a European debut. A pair of wins against AZ Alkmaar and a last-day victory at Partizan followed to earn a match-up with Liverpool, who were European champions in 2004/05 when Augusburg were stuck in the third-tier Regionalliga Süd.
Among the players that have helped Augsburg to this lofty peak is Estonia defender Ragnar Klavan, signed in 2012 from European regulars AZ. The 30-year-old spoke to UEFA.com about how the Bavarian club have adapted to their new status and the chance to take on Jürgen Klopp.
UEFA.com: Augsburg do not have the budget of other Bundesliga sides. Is it difficult to compete on so many fronts at the same time?
Ragnar Klavan: Yes, but very interesting and useful too. I think that for us as a team it is an extremely valuable experience. We probably didn't understand immediately how hard it is to play on several fronts, with flights, games every three or four days, and so on.
UEFA.com: You were one of the few Augsburg players who already had experience of European football ...
Klavan: Yes, because at AZ Alkmaar I played in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League. But I wasn't always in the starting lineup or a key player – I did not play every game so the pressure and workload was not too big.
At Augsburg I have played in all the league games while in the UEFA Europa League I only missed the two matches with Partizan. Before the home game, we decided together with the coaches that I needed a rest, then I sat out the second one through injury. Watching on TV, I worried terribly and probably had more nerves than if I had played. But I was delighted that the lads managed to pull off a victory in the last minutes.
UEFA.com: Are there any specific targets or goals for Augsburg in the UEFA Europa League?
Klavan: We set targets from stage to stage. The first stage was the task of qualifying from the group and we did it, albeit the hard way. Now we will try to qualify from the first knockout round.
We have very strong opposition in Liverpool. They are favourites in this tie but I think we have a chance. If we play to our strengths and have a little luck on our side, anything is possible.
UEFA.com: There is special interest in Augsburg given that your opponents have a charismatic German coach. That said, you have experience of winning against his teams ...
Klavan: Yes, Jürgen Klopp is an excellent coach who is able to get his teams playing great football and we know he has brought fresh air to Liverpool. But we won against his Dortmund side [1-0 away last February]. As for Liverpool, they have a lot of qualities but they also have dips and off-days.
UEFA.com: As a boy you, like many young Estonians, dreamt of the English Premier League and supported Arsenal. Is that because your compatriot Mart Poom played there?
Klavan: Of course! I remember how Mart came to our small town of Viljandi and gave master classes. I was eight or nine, and of course all of us were fans of the Premier League. David Beckham and Thierry Henry were my heroes.
UEFA.com: Your favourites were attacking players, but you became a central defender ...
Klavan: Well, eventually. At first I played in midfield and at left-back. Only at Alkmaar did Louis van Gaal turn me into a central defender.
UEFA.com: Looking back at 2015, what will you remember and what are you expecting from 2016?
Klavan: Augsburg got a great result, the best in our history, with fifth place in the Bundesliga and a first qualification for Europe. We then had a very difficult autumn this season, a period of failures, and we had to work hard to correct the situation. But for the team and for me personally it was a very useful period as it taught us a lot. Difficulties only make you stronger.