Werder Bremen’s rebound will mean little if it can’t reach Champions League

Poor Werder Bremen. When struggling, its woes went unheard, so loud were the laughs at Borussia Dortmund’s expense. But when soaring, in comes Wolfsburg, knocking in five goals two weeks ago to crunch Werder’s near-success into a throw-away sentence at the end of a paragraph. All this team wants is someone to notice it, damn it, but in this league of showoffs and scrappy strugglers and this weekend’s hedgemonic opposition, Bayern Munich, people are constantly swiping left when encountering the insipid green diamond that is Werder Bremen.

(Early in its history, Werder’s badge depicted what appear to be swaying snakes boasting eyeballs in the middle of the neck. Ain’t nobody swiping left past that🙂

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Oh, but if only Bremen’s problems could be solved with a mere shift away from someone’s misguided interpretation of the letter “W.” It’s rather hard to believe that just over a decade ago, this team was lifting the Bundesliga’s trophy, a full six points clear of Bayern. Since finishing third in 2010 — then flailing about in the Champions League group stages — this team has been stuck in midtable mediocrity.

To be fair on poor Werder, it didn’t expect much from this season. Big name like playmaker Kevin De Bruynes and defender Sokratis left two years ago. Aaron Hunt followed this summer. But the club decided to stick with head coach Robin Dutt, despite poor performances and the team’s dreadful tendency to fall apart when things got tough. Perhaps Werder was still grieving the loss of former coach Thomas Schaaf, he with the emphasis on attack and the ability to get the team into the Champions League six years in a row. Or perhaps the club thought it couldn’t do any better than Dutt.

Turns out that assumption was stupid. Werder had a man waiting in the wings that was much, much better than Dutt had ever been. And once Viktor Skrypnyk had been promoted from the reserve team to the first team, a fall run of nine games without a win, one that sent the team toward the bottom of the Bundesliga, miraculously stopped. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Imagine, for a moment, where Werder might be if the club had the guts to dispense with Dutt before the season. That a coach hired to stabilize the defense hadn’t watched his team rack up 23 goals with just nine games played. If Bremen had decided that, after a season in which a team built with barely any money just wasn’t gelling, maybe it was time to reconsider the project.

Then again, that might’ve meant Skrypnyk wouldn’t have gotten his chance. Revered as a former Werder player, Skrypnyk had never coached on any Bundesliga level. Yet that’s exactly what had happened with Schaaf — he came up coaching the youth sides before the club fired Felix Magath and handed him a chance. And now Skrypnyk, who embraces the same attacking philosophy as the revered Schaaf, is giving Bremen fans more reason to hope since their idol was in charge.

Appointed in time to lead his new side against Mainz 05 in Week 10, Skrypnyk immediately elevated the mood amongst the Werder faithful. A win will do that, of course, but it was also the Ukrainian’s willingness to throw out the old and embrace the new. One of Dutt’s objectives was to improve the side’s young players, a target often set by clubs not able to spend much cash. Yet it was Skrypnyk that started giving the youngsters some time, particularly talented playmaker Levent Aycicek, whom Bremen fans had been clamoring to see.

Germany Soccer BundesligaBut the coach is not so naive as to rely on youth alone. 27-year-old Zlatko Junuzović (right) is one of the best free-kick takers in the world, and he’s already scored five goals this season. Bremen brought in 22-year-old Jannik Vestergaard from Hoffenheim in January, but the rest of Skrypnyk’s back line is more anchored in experience. 20-year-old Davie Selke might be helping lead the line, but it’s the older Franco Di Santo that’s really pulling the team forward.

At 25, Di Santo (pictured, top) can’t really be considered an “elder,” but it’s fair to say he’s finally hitting his prime. The Argentine is just one of many failed Chelsea players using the Bundesliga to prove there’s life beyond the Blues, and after the season he’s been having, few are likely to disagree. He scored a brace to record that much-needed win at Mainz and has added six more since, putting him on 12 league goals in 17 games – quite the jump from the four he recorded last year. Di Santo is thriving under his new coach, who favors two up top, enabling the forward to showcase his versatility, moving out wide, holding up play and finding a way to finish his chances.

But what Skrypnyk cannot change, at least not immediately, is the financial situation at the Weserstadion. The loss of Champions League money hit the side hard, which is why they’ve spent the last couple seasons sniffing out bargains and mourning the tremendous impact De Bruyne is having at Wolfsburg. The remedy, then, has to be bypassing that silly little tournament known as Europa League, and landing right back in the big one.

Easier said than done. Werder has undergone a dramatic transformation, that much is certain. Rather than duking it out with Dortmund for the right to sit bottom, it’s now in a fight for seventh with Hoffenheim, six points back of Bayer Leverkusen in fourth. Wolfsburg is almost certain to finish second, while Schalke and Borussia Mönchengladbach both look likely to challenge for the other two Champions League spots.

Bremen will be forced to hope another team hits a slump. Because if next season arrives without the Champions League, the club might find itself right back where it began this year.

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