Two of Germany’s most successful sides in the 21st Century face one another tomorrow afternoon in the Bundesliga. Between them, Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen have notched up 12 top-four finishes this millennium, although as it stands, neither side looks good enough to take that total up to 13 or 14 come May. Winning here, however, is probably the only way to change that.
Some of the main narratives from both sides’ season to date have involved former Chelsea players. While Claudio Pizarro can’t stop scoring for Bremen, Michael Ballack has been one of the more disappointing of a plethora of disappointing performers for beleaguered coach Robin Dutt at Bayer Leverkusen. However, the club’s fans – eagerly awaiting the upcoming Champions League tie against Barcelona – seemingly sided with the 35-year-old midfielder as he was taken off during last weekend’s 3-2 victory over Mainz. Boos reverberated around the BayArena, and such noises were not entirely unexpected – since joining from Freiburg in the summer, Dutt is yet to convince both fans of the club and the players in his squad that he is the right man for the job.
His side come into this game one spot and one point behind fifth-placed Bremen. Leverkusen, however, boast the better goal difference (+1, compared to north German side’s -1 tally), although they lack a goalscorer, and have only netted 25 times – five less than Pizarro and Bremen. Given the form of the teams currently occupying the Champions League qualification spots, and the gap in points that separates Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Borussia Mönchengladbach from the likes of Bremen and Leverkusen, Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf and Dutt will have to get their teams playing out of their skins to claim one of the lucrative top-four positions.
Leverkusen might fancy themselves at the Weserstadion tomorrow, though, as they have not lost there since December 2007, boast the third-best record on the road in the 2011/12 Bundesliga, and beat Bremen 1-0 in the corresponding clash back in August. On top of that, Bremen could only draw 0-0 with relegation-battling Kaiserslautern last weekend, and in their final game before the winter break, were hammered 5-0 by Huub Stevens’ Schalke. Nevertheless, Schaaf’s side have won seven of the eight games they’ve played at home this season, and still have a number of the players who defeated Bayer Leverkusen in the 2009 DFB-Pokal final.
Bremen’s Clemens Fritz was part of the team that day, although the defender-cum-midfielder spent three years of his career with tomorrow’s opponents. Manuel Friedrich, Simon Rolfes and Karim Bellarabi, meanwhile, each spent several years at Werder as youngsters, while Leverkusen’s sporting director Rudi Völler will definitely have fond memories of his time at the Weserstadion, having made his name at the club with 97 goals in 147 games between 1982 and 1987. One of his teammates during that period, of course, was Schaaf, who was presented with his first January signing on Friday: Austrian attacker Zlatko Junuzović.
Völler, meanwhile, has recruited no new players for Dutt so far in January, although Leverkusen, like Bremen (Andreas Wolf to Monaco), have lost one player: Hanno Balitsch, a perceived troublemaker, has been allowed to join Nuremberg. However, a departure which will take place over the summer has also been announced this month – René Adler, who has spent several months out with an injury, losing his place in the Bayer side to Bernd Leno in the process, will move to Bremen’s arch-rivals Hamburg.
In the meantime, the now second-choice ‘keeper remains in the stands, and is likely to be joined there for this match by the injured attacking trio of Sidney Sam, Tranquillo Barnetta and Renato Augusto. The good news for the visitors, though, is that Bremen have a number of defensive players expected to miss out in Naldo, Sebastian Prödl (both injured) and Lukas Schmitz (suspended). With Schaaf, as ever, staying true to his 4-4-2 diamond, Leverkusen’s width-laden 4-2-3-1 – complete with swashbuckling full-backs – could see Bremen’s makeshift and exposed-down-the-channels rearguard given a stern test.
However, Dutt isn’t counting his chickens just yet: “Despite their many injury problems, Werder stick to their way of playing football,” he said during yesterday’s pre-match press conference, adding that “Bremen expect to do well and they’ve been in the top half of the league for years.” Dutt, who celebrated his 47th birthday in the week, also praised his two holding midfielders from the Mainz game, Stefan Reinartz and Lars Bender: “They varied their game a lot and switched positions with each other very well,” he said.
Schaaf, the Mannheim-born ex-defender who is also likely to be without midfielder Tim Borowski and attacker Marko Arnautović because of injury for tomorrow’s tie, was just as respectful as his opposite number: “Leverkusen have a very good team which has very good individual players and can do a lot of things,” he said. “We are facing a very difficult but also very appealing task.”
Werder Bremen against Bayer Leverkusen kicks off at 2.30pm in the UK tomorrow afternoon. Refereed by Deniz Aytekin, the game can be watched live on Bet365.com.