Before the first match
The starting point for the Youth League campaign was the draw. I had training at the time, but just afterwards someone let me know who we'd be facing. I was hoping that we'd get beatable opponents, even if that's hard to say in advance in the Youth League. When I saw we drew Manchester City, Donetsk and Lyon, I thought to myself that it would be really difficult, even though all the matches promised to be good ones. It was hard to say how we would play against these teams because we had no real way of comparing ourselves against them. I've played several games with Germany against France and England so I had some idea of what we could expect against Lyon and Manchester City. I knew a couple of players through having faced them for the national team.
Matchday 1 | Shakhtar Donetsk vs TSG Hoffenheim 1-2 (0-1)
I came down to the U19s from the U23s for the first time for this match. It wasn't hard to adjust as I knew the coach and some of the players too. As one of the three older players, I tried to impart some of my experience on the rest of the squad. I don't have to go about showing them what to do on the pitch, they all know what their job is. It's more about conducting yourself in the right way, that's an area where I want to set an example.
I had never been to Ukraine before, but I'd played against the Ukraine team while representing Germany at the U17 European championships. I remember the coaches telling us back then that it was a big chance for a lot of their players to make a name for themselves and that they'd therefore throw everything at the match. I noticed the same thing in the first game against Donetsk. They really came at us with a lot of fire and passion. I was actually expecting there to be a few Brazilians playing - as is the case in their first team - so I was surprised when it was just Ukrainians.
I felt a bit of tension before the match. I think the same was true for a lot of the lads. That was to be expected as we were entering into something completely new. We saw ourselves as the underdogs going into the match and we were slightly lucky at the start. But as the game went on we started to realise that it was coming together for us. We kept getting better and we noticed that we were really in with a shot. We saw the way we were playing and we said to ourselves: ''This is working.'' We had a plan and we were pulling it off.
I'd say I performed pretty well in the match. Donetsk saw a lot of the ball, so we had to be switched on tactically to hold out in defense. I had to do a lot of organising to help keep us on the front foot with good defensive play.
Matchday 2 | TSG Hoffenheim vs Manchester City 5-2 (2-1)
We were expecting a lot of fans to come and watch the match, but seeing 3,000 turn out in the end was really something else. At the start of the match, perhaps a few of us were nervous playing in front of the crowd. But as the game went on it's something that worked more and more in our favour and really helped drive us on. We managed to score two quick goals and we realised that we could beat City as well. Of course it wasn't easy, City had their chances too. But what we really have going for us in the Youth League, more than anything else, is how decisive we are in front of goal.
Manchester put us under more and more pressure in the second half, but that just meant more space opened up, which we were able to take advantage of to score more goals. We positioned ourselves very compactly, and for me in the defensive midfielder role, it was all about getting a foot in and winning challenges against City's attacking midfielders. The idea was to stop them from really finding their flow.
I don't think City were able to properly assess us before the game, as they just didn't seem to know how we play. Perhaps they weren't expecting that we would be able to play the way we did. That's natural in a way when you're a club like Manchester City and you line up against a club that isn't so well-known and hasn't won as many trophies. But they certainly learned over the course of the match, and now I'm pretty certain they know who we are.
The win over City was real confirmation for us that we can compete with the best. I don't think the fans were expecting us to win either. But in this match we showed that if we keep to our plan, then anything is possible.
Matchday 3 | TSG Hoffenheim vs Olympique Lyon 3-1 (0-0)
Once again we had a big name coming to play us and once again we wanted to give a really good performance. We didn't go into the game thinking we could dispatch them with ease, but at the same time I think a few of the lads had gained a bit more confidence after the first couple of games. The fact that we beat them in the end really just came down to us wanting it more. The goals came relatively late on. It was another game in which our opponents showed how good they were from a technical point of view. But we were very clinical once again, and I'd also say that we were perhaps just willing to run the extra yard in comparison to them.
Halfway through the group stage and we were sitting atop the table with maximum points. We really had to pinch ourselves for a moment. But we would never have let it get into our heads that we'd already achieved our goal. I was really impressed by the way the team didn't let any complacency creep in. We all knew that we had to act as if we had everything to play for.
Matchday 4 | Olympique Lyon vs TSG Hoffenheim 3-3 (1-1)
We'd all done the maths going into the game and realised that we already had a chance to secure our place in the knock-out round, but this didn't enter into the equation at all during the warm-up and the game itself. We just wanted to perform to the best of our abilities.
The first half was very difficult, easily up there with the first half in Manchester as the most difficult 45 minutes of our whole campaign. I think that Lyon were out for revenge after our first encounter with them. We noticed a big difference in the way they came at us in this game compared to the previous one. They really gave a demonstration of how good they are. In the first half at least, we were solely focused on keeping them at bay. My opposite number was Hamza Rafia - in my opinion the best player I've come up against throughout the whole tournament. We weren't playing well on the attacking side of things, but fortunately in the second half we upped our game and managed to come away with a point.
I have the sense that in the Youth League, we always manage to be turn it on and be perform at our best. We were able to really give everything we had in the second half in Lyon, aided of course by the players who came on as substitutes. We've been able to count on a very strong bench in all our Youth League matches. Everyone who's come on has done brilliantly, and have been seamlessly integrated into the play of the ten players already on the pitch. That speaks volumes about us as a team.
When the final whistle blew, we knew we'd made it through to the next round. We didn't actually celebrate that much though as we were still focused on the game itself, in which we'd passed up an opportunity to snatch a win right at the end.
After all the Youth League matches, we were able to attend the first team's Champions League matches the same evening. We could all get a glimpse of where it is we want to end up. Experiencing the atmosphere in Lyon was amazing, especially with the Champions League hymn and all the spectacle surrounding it.
Matchday 5 | TSG Hoffenheim vs Shakhtar Donetsk 1-1 (0-1)
A win against Donetsk would have been enough to wrap up first place in the group. We therefore experienced our first real taste of disappointment at the end of this match. We had wanted to secure first place with a win in the last match in Lyon, so after drawing there we all said to ourselves: ''Okay, let's get the job done against Donetsk.'' We actually played well, but in the end we just couldn't do enough to win.
For my part, I actually think this was my best performance of the campaign. I was involved in a lot of good moments at both ends of the pitch, but I think I really excelled in winning the ball back in midfield, which gave us a stable platform and allowed us to launch a lot of our attacking moves.
Matchday 6 | Manchester City vs TSG Hoffenheim 2-1 (2-0)
Given that Lyon had failed to beat Donetsk, we knew before kick-off that our place as group winners was secure. But the sense of excitement was still there, simply because the Youth League is something special. But naturally enough it was reassuring knowing that there was no pressure on us to win.
It was Manchester City we were facing, so of course we wanted to play well regardless of the circumstances. Losing the match was hard to take, the first half was particularly difficult. Despite the fact they didn't make it out the group, I actually think that City side were our toughest opponents so far in the Youth League. Maybe I see it that way because, I have to admit, that game was the hardest for me on an individual level. I just seemed to be a bit off the pace. It was a tough match.
Fortunately we were able to pick ourselves up and play with a bit more courage in the second half. Had luck gone our way we might have even been able to snatch a point. Although we'd won the group, we were annoyed that we'd lost the game. Our joy at having reached the round of 16 came a bit later.
An absolute highlight for me was attending the Champions League match between City and our first team. Just being able to see first-hand how Manchester pass the ball about, how they shine in attack, how much individual quality their players have - it was absolutely incredible.
Round of 16 | TSG Hoffenheim vs Dynamo Kiev 0-0 (4-2 on penalties)
Dynamo Kiev weren't exactly one of the biggest names we could have drawn, but they'd just beaten Juventus 3-0. Plus in the knock-out stages of the Youth League there are no easy opponents. We knew that it was going to be extremely difficult. We treated the game in the same way we would any other. We didn't let the fact they'd beaten Juventus 3-0 faze us.
I was really impressed by the way Kiev defended - both as a unit as well as in the individual duels. They were always strong in the challenge, there were a few sore ones. Overall it was an effective style of play and went some way to explaining how they got so far in the tournament. We did well to carve out goal-scoring opportunities and keep things tight at the back. We felt like we could score a goal in all of our games, but this was the only one in which this didn't turn out to be the case. Nonetheless, we still managed to win.
This game was the first one in which I played as a more box-to-box midfielder. This was an unfamiliar role for me, but I knew exactly what the coach expected of me. This meant the adjustment wasn't too hard. When it came down to penalties, it was clear that David (Otto), Dome (Alberico) and I, as the older players, would all be expected to step up to the plate. We were all convinced that we'd find the back of the net, and we also knew that we had a brilliant goalkeeper in Daniel (Klein), who managed to save the penalty immediately before mine. We knew we would win - it didn't matter if it was in normal time or penalties.
Quarter-final | TSG Hoffenheim vs Real Madrid 4-2 (2-1)
For me, the game against Real was a somewhat bittersweet experience. I had back problems going into the game, but I'd held onto the hope that it would improve in time for the day of the match. I did all I could to recover, but in the warm-up I realised that I wasn't 100 percent. You need to be at your absolute best against Real Madrid, so I told the coach that Amadou (Onana) should play instead. I know that he's capable of playing as well as I can, which made me feel a bit better. But of course it was still a bad experience.
So it was that I watched the win over Real from the bench. This was a new experience for me, as I more or less never get injured. The whole context surrounding the match was brilliant - with a sold-out stadium and a live broadcast on Sport1. I thought we performed with so much courage, and it was great to see that we didn't let playing against such a prestigious name get to us. At the same time, you could really see that Real were capable of great things going forward. We did well to keep them at bay, and I'd say we adapted better to the rain.
I obviously celebrated with the team after the game, but deep down I was still a little bit gutted that I wasn't able to contribute to the win. But football is all about winning as a team, so I soon got over my individual disappointment and fully joined in with the celebrations.
Final Four in Nyon
Nobody would have thought it were possible for us to now be making the trip to Nyon. But in all of our matches, it was clear that we were the better side and that we deserved to win. We always take every game as it comes - this one against Porto is no different. We'll try to play as best we can, but Porto are obviously a really strong opponent. We need another excellent performance, full of hard work and passion. If we stick to our plan and things go our way, there's no reason we won't win this match as well.
Youth League, Semi-final
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim - FC Porto
Friday, 26 April, 14:00 CET, Centre sportif de Colovray Nyon
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Matchday -5: FC Porto | Club history