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Mar 3, 2011

What's wrong with Werder Bremen?

The closer proximity of the Weserstadion's stands to its pitch since the ground's 2008 facelift is a definite improvement, and when Sebastian Prodl headed in Aaron Hunt's looping cross to snatch a last-minute equaliser against Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday, you really felt the benefit. The stadium erupted, with fans and players coming together in joy and relief.

While Werder have enjoyed many great moments at the Weser in the last 87 years, there haven't been so many of late. This most stable of Bundesliga clubs is suffering this season, struggling domestically and out of Europe before Christmas for the first time since 2004. So how did it come to this?

"If I knew why, I'd tell everyone and we wouldn't be down there," Werder's Mikael Silvestre grins ruefully. The former Manchester United and Arsenal defender pitched up in Germany in late August, more used to challenging for silverware than propping up most of the rest.

"I expected to find that again here," he admits. "Because for ten years the club has been on a good path, qualifying regularly for the Champions League. Everybody is surprised - the players, the coach and the fans. You don't often see Werder so low in the table."

Speaking after Werder's heavy Champions League defeat at Tottenham in November, midfielder Daniel Jensen had said: "I've been here for six-and-a-half years and it's the first time our tactic has been to defend our goal. We've always stood for good attacking football and have always qualified for the UEFA Cup or the next stage, but right now we have a bigger problem in the Bundesliga."

His gloomy prognosis has proved to be just about right. Saturday's draw for promoted Kaiserslautern against Hamburg sent Werder into the bottom three, even if the point gleaned against Leverkusen was enough to see them leap back out of it.

Goalscoring is a problem. Werder have failed to register in nine of their 24 Bundesliga matches to date. Nine-goal Hugo Almeida left in the winter break for a lucrative deal at Besiktas. Expensive signing Marko Arnautovic hasn't scored a league goal since his debut in August, leaving Claudio Pizarro and skipper Torsten Frings (four each) as top scorers. The figures are demoralising for a team that coach Thomas Schaaf has built on staunchly attack-minded principles.

Silvestre concedes that Werder have "lost a bit of self-confidence, and we have lots of injuries. The coach has never been able to put out the same team twice in a row." He recognises the loss of their star player has been particularly tough to surmount, even if the club has got past the similar losses of Johan Micoud, Miroslav Klose and Diego in years gone by. "There has been the transition after (Mesut) Ozil left - he was an important player in the group - but mainly the injuries have handicapped us. When things are going badly, it's difficult to keep your head above water."

Ozil's departure nevertheless hit hard. Aaron Hunt has never been comfortable as a replacement in a central position, and the midfield has looked short on creativity. Brazilian signing Wesley suffered a bad knee injury in November, though he has just resumed light training, and Tim Borowski was making his comeback against Leverkusen having not started since September.

In keeping with Werder's current luck he lasted just 35 minutes, substituted after a clash of heads with team-mate Dominik Schmidt. He had showed flashes of his old form, despite spurning the best chance of the first half when he failed to beat Rene Adler in a one-on-one. Against Leverkusen, striker Claudio Pizarro - as for much of the season - was forced to come deeper looking for the ball. Rather than being a tactical nuance, the Peruvian's partial reinvention as a playmaker is a practical necessity.

Thomas Schaaf has served Werder as player and coach over a period now spanning five separate decades, and has been at the helm of the first team for nearly 12 years. While general manager Klaus Allofs recently had to issue a statement confirming that Schaaf would remain in his post, Silvestre insists that those inside the club have never shared any public doubts over the coach's ability to continue.

"Since his arrival, and that of Klaus Allofs, Werder has stepped up a level, has become better-known as a club and at European level as well," he points out. "His work is well-recognised of course at Werder and he has everybody's support. He's someone who works very hard, who gives everything to the club and is very serious in his work."

That much is clear - even in the raucous scenes that followed Prodl's late goal, Schaaf stood on the touchline furiously motioning at his men to re-establish their shape. His total immersion in the club allows him to draw on the full diversity of Werder's resources to weather the storm.

The injury situation has seen seven players from the club's Under-23 squad called up to supplement the first-team. If it's been a baptism a fire for the likes of Schmidt, Felix Kroos and Philipp Bargfrede, their graduation allows cautious optimism should Werder get through their current problems.

"There are some good players there," enthuses Silvestre. "Especially Flo (Trinks) who is 18, Felix who's 19. Philipp played last year so has a little more experience… they're players whose futures are very promising for the club. It's good, because at the very least it's insurance for the club's future."

Trinks brimmed with confidence on his first Bundesliga start against Leverkusen, and his superb cross created the first goal, turned into his own net by Stefan Kiessling under pressure from Per Mertesacker. "Of course, it's part of my job as one of the older ones to share my experience," Silvestre says. "So I give advice when it's necessary." The Frenchman is also helping out in the final third, reprising his role as an attacking left-back from his early United days, which he admits "takes a lot of energy".

Whatever Werder's problems, at least the club and fans are more or less on the same page - as the unfurling of a huge banner saying "Thomas Schaaf bliebt!" ("Stay!") at the end of the game showed.

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