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Mar 16, 2012

Babel embracing Bundesliga

It still hurts. A touch late for our midday meeting after some treatment on a muscle injury, Ryan Babel says he feels "ready" for Friday's televised crucial clash with VfB Stuttgart. Yet that's not really the cause of residual soreness. Three days on from Hoffenheim's 7-1 humbling at Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena, collective pride is still stinging.

"We tried to stay deep and tried to make the spaces compact for them," Babel laments. "And we hoped it would be difficult for Bayern to play, but the very early goal for them (Mario Gomez broke the deadlock in the fifth minute) was the key." It was an especially bitter pill to swallow given renewed optimism around the Rhein-Necker-Arena since Markus Babbel's arrival as coach last month, with four points garnered in his opening two games in charge.

"In the games before we created a foundation that we could build on," Netherlands international Babel says, "and in one game, you felt as if everything was gone again. On the other hand, you have to be realistic and say that we were playing against a Champions League side."

Containment, the former Liverpool man says, has been the watchword of the new management. "He's tried to make sure that defensive-wise, we are standing firm. We defend, and then attack from there. If we can't win the game, we need to try not to lose it. In the last games before Bayern we did that quite well, so we need to do that again."

It could be construed as a case of playing to the squad's strengths - Hoffenheim are the fifth-lowest scorers in the Bundesliga, with just 28 in 25 matches so far. As the big-name forward player in the group, does Babel feel a touch of pressure?

"Not really," he shrugs. "We have a lot of options up front, and I've been played in a few different positions, each one of which involves different tasks. It's a combination of the whole team. The problem is a little bit overrated, because we've had the chances but we haven't taken them. It'd be a different story if we weren't creating any chances at all, but it's just a bit of luck that's needed."

Often portrayed as unpredictable during his time in England, Babel is gradually warming to a senior role. "A little bit of responsibility is always there," he says. "We have a young team and we're still learning. In my opinion, we dropped unnecessary points in a lot of games. In the end, it's just experience. I also want to do well for myself, but in a way that means I can help the team."

Certainly Babel is one of the better communicators around, probably in the whole of the Bundesliga. One of the first prominent names to enthusiastically embrace Twitter, he took to the social network in the hours following the Bayern defeat to apologise to fans. Having stumbled into controversy after jokingly posting an image of referee Howard Webb in Manchester United shirt (he says now "the FA overreacted" in fining him £10,000), Babel now uses Twitter as part of a more guarded approach to media relations.

"It's funny," he says, "because after the Bayern game I had an interview and the journalist... it was his intention to create something, I think. So the interview came out a little bit wrong, and if fans read that, they get a different impression. With Twitter it's direct - you to the fans, so obviously you can't be misquoted. So I think it's a good platform for you to express your feelings."

Although initially reluctant to leave Liverpool ("I still have a house there, and I built a lot of relationships in my time there, so it's always good when I'm back," he says), Babel says the Bundesliga has been something of a revelation to him since his arrival in the January 2011 transfer window.

"I was very impressed," he nods. "When I arrived, I was very surprised by the level. Most teams want to play football and be positive, and that's why everybody can beat each other." The 25-year-old picks out reigning champions - and current leaders - Dortmund as a particularly good watch, and given their coach Jurgen Klopp's success in moulding such a vibrant young side, a possible blueprint for Hoffenheim's future.

"We have a lot of players with potential, and I think if Hoffenheim can keep those players and build on them then the club has a really good future. We have a loyal owner (software magnate Dietmar Hopp) looking after the club, and that's positive."

The start of that, Babel hopes, will be against Stuttgart. It's a match that has particular significance for the club, and not just because they go into the clash just three points behind Bruno Labbadia's side and aiming to banish any lingering relegation fears.

"It's a special game," he says, "because it's a kind of derby. If we can do well, it'll be good for the fans, especially the ones who travelled to Munich. We will be ready."

An old favourite will return for the game in the shape of Bosnian forward Vedad Ibisevic. A prolific scorer during Hoffenheim's stellar start to their debut Bundesliga season, Ibisevic has already formed a deadly partnership with free-scoring Martin Harnik since his move. "I think it was a big loss for Hoffenheim," Babel says. "At the same time, it gave an opportunity for other, young players to stand up, so maybe in the end it was best for both parties. Now we have to make sure we defend well against him, because he's a good striker."

Babel hopes a strong end to the season will set him on the way to Euro 2012, a competition he is "confident" that Netherlands can do well in. So will any German hip-hop be piping its way into those celebrated headphones en route to Ukraine? "Er... I haven't really got into that," he bluffs, "but Germany's a big market, so I'm sure there are some great rappers here." While he retains his easy charm, Babel has grown into a more diplomatic person than English fans may remember.

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