On Sunday, two of German football’s traditional powerhouses met in the Nordderby. One was Hamburger SV, whose 2-1 defeat sees their rotten season continue in 14th place. The other was Werder Bremen, who sit two points behind sixth placed Freiburg in eighth . With just five games left in the league season, they have a real chance of qualifying for European football for the first time since 2011.
Yes, we’re talking about Bremen, a side whom many pundits considered one of this years’ clearest candidates for relegation. We’re talking about Bremen, whose 14th place finish last year was a generous reflection on an otherwise mouldy campaign.
As the 2016/17 season kicked off, they seemed intent on another year of misery. Three defeats in their first three games, including an embarrassing exit to Sportfreunde Lotte in the Cup, had coach Viktor Skrypnik scratching his head for a solution.
He wouldn’t find one, the Green-Whites sacking the Ukrainian coach after a dismal 4-1 defeat away to Borussia Mönchengladbach in September.
Up stepped Under-23 coach Alexander Nouri, who sporting director Frank Baumann had praised for his ability to “work successfully under difficult conditions,” says the 41-year-old. “He is a conscientious, ambitious coach, whom we trust to lead the team successfully into the next games.”
Even Baumann, however, could not have fathomed the success that his “temporary solution” would bring to the Weserstadion. Bremen have won five in their last six, including stunning 3-0 victories over Red Bull Leipzig and Schalke 04. Even with their sparkling recent form however, talk of a European qualification owes more to the collapse of the teams around them than any systemic change.
In truth, Bremen should be nowhere near the qualifying places. After being beaten by Mainz in Nouri’s opening game, a mini-revival saw two wins from three against Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen.
Since then though, it hasn’t been pretty viewing, with just two wins arriving in their next seventeen games. Injuries continue to plague the squad, with Clemens Fritz and Izet Hajrovic both long-term casualties, which makes their recent success all the more remarkable.
Freiburg, who themselves are having a phenomenal season, lost comprehensively at Red Bull Leipzig at the weekend, while Hertha Berlin were upended away at Mainz. In the race for the European places, nobody wants to run.
Except Bremen, that is. Despite enduring a dfficult few years and the loss of some talented players, memories of the Champions League under Thomas Schaaf and Claudio Pizarro still linger down by the Weser. Talents like Serge Gnabry, who leads the scoring charts with 10 goals, have done much to reinvigorate Bremen’s journeyman squad and reignite hopes of a place in Europe.
“There’s a solidarity about us,” said Nouri. “It’s a very strong-willed group. The team spirit is unbelievable.”
With games against Hertha BSC, Köln and Hoffenheim on the horizon, they’ll need it. Bremen fans, however, are just glad to be back in the mix. With one of the brightest young managers at Germany at the helm, who knows where they’ll end up.
By Christopher Weir.