Back-to-back Bundesliga defeats may have dented their German title bid, but Werder Bremen underlined their European credentials with a 3-0 UEFA Cup Round of 32 first-leg victory against AFC Ajax.
Sub-standard performances in their last two league outings have left Thomas Schaaf's side six points behind FC Schalke 04 in the championship race, yet there was no sign of malaise as Bremen put three goals past ten-man Ajax last night. Olaf Lindenbergh's dismissal for a second bookable offence after just 23 minutes handed Bremen the initiative and they took full advantage as Per Mertesacker, Naldo and Torsten Frings scored in the second half.
'We are back'
"My team have shown that we are back," said Schaaf. "We haven't played all that badly in recent weeks but we lacked that little bit extra you need to win games. We have discussed the mistakes we made in the past 14 days and the team have improved and returned to the levels of the past." Schaaf accepted that Lindenbergh's sending-off had helped his side regain their footing, while Ajax coach Henk ten Cate was in no doubt as to its significance. "It was a difficult match for us," said the Dutchman. "We gave them very few chances in the first half but lost a lot of energy in the process."
Understandably, Ajax are not feeling overly optimistic about next week's second leg. "Anything is possible in football, but Bremen have a very strong team," said defender Jaap Stam. Bremen general manager Klaus Allofs added: "If we play like this in the return, we're sure to qualify." While a Round of 16 tie against FC Spartak Moskva or RC Celta de Vigo may already be on Bremen minds, the main talking point last night was their hopes of another Bundesliga crown, with a huge northern derby against Hamburger SV looming on Saturday.
Mertesacker, scorer of the opener against Ajax, believes the UEFA Cup success has given Bremen wings after they lost their last match 4-1 at VfB Stuttgart, following a 2-0 home reverse against Schalke. "This was a clear message to all those who had written us off," he said. "It's nice to silence our critics four days after the Stuttgart game. We are back up to international level and have shown we can dominate a match again. Now we have to do the same in the Bundesliga." Schaaf concurred: "We are on the right path. We have to continue this on Saturday and achieve the same kind of dominance as today."
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