It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Werder Bremen head coach Thomas Schaaf. His Green-Whites are fighting to stay in the hunt for the Bundesliga’s European spots, and Schaaf had to put out the youngster Werder starting XI in club history for their 1-1 draw against Augsburg on March 24.
Schaaf’s line-up at home against Augsburg included five players 21 years or younger including teenagers Florian Hartherz (18 years old), Tom Trybull (19), and Niclas Füllkrug (19). The average starting age was 22.7 years – besting the club mark of 23.5 years from March 18 against Borussia Dortmund.
“We may be young but we are all positive and hopeful. We are all aiming for the same goal. And the older players are leading us very well,” said Hartherz, who has started the past nine games since making his Bundesliga debut on January 28, 2012.
Werder fans who have been away for a while would not recognize the team at all other than captain Clemens Fritz and Markus Rosenberg, who himself only returned to Bremen before this season following a one-year stay with Spanish side Racing Santander.
Schaaf’s list of players injured, suspended or gone is a team that could compete for the Champions League spots. Missing for the Augsburg game were top keeper Tim Wiese, defenders Naldo and Sebastian Prödl – Sebastian Boenisch was subbed in for his first appearance this season; a midfield group of Philipp Bargfrede, Aaron Hunt, Marko Marin, Mehmet Ekici and Tim Borowski; as well as strikers Marko Arnautovic and Claudio Pizarro.
And that group doesn’t even include players who left the club in the off-season such as Torsten Frings (for Toronto FC), Per Mertesacker (Arsensal), Petri Pasanen (Red Bull Salzburg), and Daniel Jensen (Novarar Calcio); winter departures Andreas Wolf (AS Monaco) and Sandro Wagner (Kaiserslautern) and March departure Wesley (gone to Palmeiras Sao Paolo).
“Look at FC Barcelona. When the Spaniards have to deal with missing 10 or 11 players who had been long time starters then they would have enormous problems as well,” Werder defender Sokratis, who himself joined the club over the summer, told the Werder website.
“The next games will be very difficult. The Europa League is very meaningful for us. But it’s in danger right now.”
“If you can make an injured list one day before the game and the players on that list make a very good team, then you know already how hard it will be,” Bremen manager Klaus Allofs said on the team’s website.
Allofs and Schaaf know they need to have the likes of Pizarro, Naldo, Wiese, Prödl, Hunt, Marin and Borowski in the line-up as their return will be key for Werder’s chances of qualifying for the Europa League next season.
The Green-Whites currently have 40 points good for sixth place and the final Europa League spot – though fifth place Bayer Leverkusen also have 40 points. But Werder are in a dog fight to keep that spot – with next to no perspectives of catching fourth placed Borussia Mönchengladbach, who have 51 points for the Champions League qualifying spot.
Hannover have 38 points, Wolfsburg 37 and Stuttgart have 36 and play later Sunday.
And Bremen’s final seven games are vs Mainz, at Cologne, vs Gladbach, at Stuttgart, vs Bayern Munich, at Wolfsburg and the final game vs Schalke.
“The next games will be very difficult. The Europa League is very meaningful for us. But it is also in danger,” added Sokratis.
Of course the Green-Whites management hopes the club finishes the season among the top six to play next season in Europe, after missing international competition this season and getting bounced in the first round of the German DFB Cup in the first round by third division club Heidenheim.
But the 2011-12 campaign has been a huge benefit for the Green-Whites’ many young players.
In addition to the starting trio of teenagers, Schaaf’s line-up against Augsburg also included the 21-year-old Serbian Aleksandar Ignjovski, the 21-year-old Swiss Francois Affolter, the 23-year-old Greek Sokratis, and the 24-year-old Austrian Zlatko Junuzovic.
Schaaf substituted in 20-year-old Lennart Thy, who along with 20-year-old Florian Trinks both won the U17 European Championship in 2009 with Germany; while 21-year-old Felix Kroos – younger brother of Bayern Munich’s Toni Kroos – and 23-year-old Swedish talent Dennis Avdic – who has not played for Bremen thus far this season – were reserves for the game.
With all the talent up and coming, Werder’s future looks strong. But Schaaf and Allofs know a team that averages less than 23 years will have a very, very difficult time in the present fight for the much sought-after European spots.