Leipzig (Germany) (AFP) – Having joined RB Leipzig when they were still in Germany’s second division, Peter Gulacsi has seen the club grow from Bundesliga new boys and on to a first appearance in the Champions League knock-out stage.
The Hungarian goalkeeper is relishing Wednesday’s last 16, first leg when the ambitious eastern German club, bankrolled by energy drinks giants Red Bull, face last season’s beaten finalists Tottenham Hotspur in London.
«It’s a new experience to play against an English side. It’s a big opportunity and a big test,» Gulacsi told AFP.
«If we have a good day, maybe we could surprise them.»
While Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham sit fifth in the Premier League, Leipzig head to London in the midst of a battle at the top of the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich, with whom they drew 0-0 earlier this month.
«It’s going to be two difficult games, but this is what you look forward to,» Gulacsi said of the Spurs tie. «These are the games we have been fighting to play in.»
– ‘Step by step’ –
The last-16 showdown is the latest step in Leipzig’s rise over the last decade since starting in Germany’s fifth tier in 2009.
Gulacsi joined from Red Bull Salzburg in 2015, and the club won promotion to the top tier in his first season.
In their debut campaign in the elite, Leipzig shook up the established order, briefly going top before finishing second behind Bayern.
Now they are enjoying their second Champions League campaign, with ambitious 32-year-old coach Julian Nagelsmann steering Leipzig to the last 16 for the first time in his debut season in charge.
Leipzig’s success has been built around a core of key players.
Along with Gulacsi, Sweden winger Emil Forsberg, Denmark’s Yussuf Poulsen, Austrian winger Marcel Sabitzer and Germany full-backs Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg played for the club in the second division and have gone on to establish themselves at international level.
«If you look at the team, there has been a lot of changes, but we had a group of six, seven players who provided the base we have built on,» said Gulacsi.
«The team has grown, the city is buzzing about football.
«It’s a continuity, we are trying to go step by step and I am happy to be part of that.»
Wednesday’s game will be a return to England for Gulacsi, who left home-town club MTK Budapest to join Liverpool in 2007 as a raw 17-year-old.
He spent six years with Liverpool, yet never made a competitive appearance with Pepe Reina the incumbent goalkeeper.
Instead, Gulacsi learnt his trade on loan at lower-league sides Hereford United, Tranmere Rovers and Hull City.
– Liverpool lessons –
«I managed to be on the bench 52 times at Liverpool and I never played a game in the first team but I learned a lot on my loans,» said Gulacsi.
«When you are at a big club like Liverpool, you know it is not easy to get into the first team.
«I still gave my best, but Pepe Reina was one of the top three ‘keepers in the whole world at that time.
«It was still a great experience to train with the first team, to learn from those players.»
Gulacsi was 23 when he left in 2013 to join Salzburg, winning the Austrian league and cup double in each of his two seasons there.
On Wednesday, while Gulacsi tries to keep a Spurs attack deprived of Harry Kane at bay, he will also hope Germany striker Timo Werner can wreak havoc at the other end. Werner has 20 league goals this season and three in the Champions League.
«In terms of his first few steps, Timo is one of the quickest players in Europe,» said Gulacsi.
«He has also stepped up his game tactically this season and his scoring form is simply superb.»
Gulacsi turns 30 on May 6, when he hopes Leipzig will still be in the running for the German title. They are currently second, a point behind Bayern.
«It would probably be the biggest moment in my career and a fantastic achievement,» he said of the prospect of Leipzig becoming champions.
«But we still have a lot of work to do.»