When Thomas Schaaf sends out his Werder Bremen side at home to Udinese Calcio tomorrow he may hope the familiar Weserstadion surroundings bring out his side's Bundesliga, as opposed to UEFA Champions League, form.
In the domestic league they are playing attractive football. Victory away to FC Bayern München next Saturday would take Bremen to the top of the table. In Europe, however, their free-scoring form, that has seen them average nearly three goals per Bundesliga game this season, deserts them.
Three games into the group stage, Bremen sit bottom of their pool, only one point and two goals to their name after defeats by FC Barcelona and Panathinaikos FC then a draw at Udinese. Only three late third qualifying round goals in August allowed them to pip FC Basel 1893 to this stage, and they are still recovering from the traumatic 10-2 aggregate defeat against Olympique Lyonnais that ended their campaign last season.
'A real lesson'
Schaaf's connection with Bremen goes back to July 1971 when he joined the club as a youth player. He has been head coach since 1999, and has a good idea why his side cannot reproduce their domestic performances in Europe. "We are not as efficient up front on the European stage," he told werder.de. "We had to learn a real lesson from Lyon last season."
General manager Klaus Allofs concurs. "We play extremely attacking football," he said. "By doing this, we risk too much from time to time." The fact that Bremen have conceded twice as many Bundesliga goals as Bayern, FC Schalke 04 or Hamburger SV suggests as much. "We have always said we are not a perfect team yet," Allofs added.
Indeed, it is clear that Bremen are still missing experienced French defender Valérien Ismaël, a summer departure for Bayern who have conceded just one goal in their three group-stage wins. Frank Fahrenhorst and Naldo are now the centre-back partnership, and although Schaaf is happy with their performances, he conceded: "Our defenders are still very young."
Allofs again is in agreement with the coach. "We are still looking for a real balance between our defence, our midfield and our attacking line," he said. And he knows that whatever the result on Wednesday, they must gel for the subsequent trip to the Camp Nou. "
We must collect some points in Barcelona if we still want a chance to qualify for the next Champions League round."
However it could be argued that their current status of being a thorn in the side of the big guns but never one themselves, is one they have long held. They have won the league three times in the last 20 years, but each time Bayern have swiftly restored their dominance.
Historically, too, their European record is distinctly mixed. They did win the 1991/92 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, surprisingly beating AS Monaco FC in the final, but in the premier competition they have never performed to the level of Bayern, or even Hamburger SV, despite in those seasons being the equal of those clubs.
Their one speciality has been spectacular comebacks at the Weserstadion. In 1988/89, after a 3-0 first-leg defeat by East German champions Berliner FC Dynamo, Bremen claimed four second-half goals in the return to win 5-0, and in the group stage five years later they went three down at home to RSC Anderlecht, only to prevail 5-3. Those victories, along with a 6-2 second-leg extra-time triumph in the 1987/88 UEFA Cup against FC Spartak Moskva following a 4-1 loss in Russia, earned the club the nickname the 'Weser wonders', but eventually in each of those competitions they came unstuck.
Furthermore, whenever a player has really announced himself at the Weserstadion, he has soon departed for more lucrative pastures: Frank Rost, Ailton, Mladen Kristajic and Fabian Ernst have all left for Schalke since helping Bremen to the 2003/04 championship, while Claudio Pizarro and Ismaël moved to Bayern. In the past, Rudi Völler went a similar way to AS Roma, while the coach in their previous heyday, Otto Rehhagel, was badly missed when he joined Bayern in 1995.
Now their hopes are pinned on French playmaker Johan Micoud and strikers Miroslav Klose and Ivan Klasnic, but they are yet to truly look as comfortable on the continental stage as they have in the Bundesliga. Pointedly, Allofs said their main ambition was domestic: "Our goal is to win the German championship this season." The team they are running so close in that league, Bayern, would consider that a minimum requirement.
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