A glance at the German Bundesliga table at the halfway stage of the season might surprise the casual observer: the usual suspects such as Munich giants Bayern or Borussia Dortmund are conspicuously absent. Instead, SV Werder Bremen sit proudly atop the pile after the first half of the season, claiming the unofficial title of autumn champions.
**Most recent triumph under Rehhagel**
The club from the Hanseatic port city has been starved of league success since Otto Rehhagel's glorious 14-year reign. 'King Otto', finding new fame nowadays as Greece national coach, took the Bremen helm between 1981 and 1995, leading Werder to the 1988 and 1993 championships, the German Cup in 1991 and 1994 and the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1992, where they defeated Monaco in the final.
Rehhagel's departure ushered in a lean period, but now one of the veteran coach's former pupils appears set to replicate his master's success in the city on the river Weser. Thomas Schaaf, a fixture in the Bremen squad from 1978 to 1995, took the coaching reins in 1999 and has slowly but surely pieced together a high-quality side bristling with international experience that took the league by storm in the first half of the season. The North German outfit showed admirable consistency and have lost just twice in 17 games so far.
Brazilian magic guarantees the goals
Thirty-year-old Brazilian striker Ailton has played a major role in the club's success, firing a remarkable 16 goals to claim more than a third of his side's total and put him well out in front in the race to finish leading scorer. The South American has spent six years in Bremen and hopes his outstanding form will finally earn a call-up to the Brazil squad.
However, the prolific marksman has already decided to seek pastures new and will join rivals Schalke 04 in summer 2004. Highly-rated Serbia and Montenegro defender Mladen Krstajic is to accompany Ailton from Bremen to the sleeping Gelsenkirchen giants.
French maestro pulls the strings
The Bremen squad oozes international class, with France midfielder Johan Micoud a model of style and panache. The 30 year-old playmaker is the focus and main distribution point of Werder's slick attacking game, and has also supplied six goals to slot in behind Ailton as the club's second highest scorer. The Frenchman, who never quite lived up to his "next Zidane" label, is irreplaceable in the current team as his precision build-up play creates chance after chance for Ailton and company.
Ivan Klasnic heads a list of promising newcomers. The 23 year-old striker, another six-goal man. looks a sound bet for the future and is justifiably hopeful of a trip to EURO 2004 in Portugal with Croatia this summer after a string of tasty displays.
Another youngster with a rosy future is Paraguay striker Nelson Valdez, just 20 years old but already a sparkling element in the mix at Bremen. The player, who has three goals in seven appearances, travelled to the FIFA U-20 World Championships in the United Arab Emirates with his international team-mates and made it through to the last 16. Valdez also got his name on the score sheet - against Germany.
Bremen's second Frenchman, summer signing Valérien Ismael, has proved a model of consistency, appearing in all 17 games to date alongside Canada's Paul Stalteri and Hungary midfielder Krisztian Lisztes.
From a German perspective, Fabian Ernst and Frank Baumann look certain to make the trip to Portugal, together with Greece striker Angelos Charisteas. The summer will be less of a challenge for Ümit Davala, a member of the Turkey squad which claimed third place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan but failed to qualify for EURO 2004. Bremen's multi-cultural stars have earned admiration and respect from their peer group: in a poll of 254 Bundesliga professionals conducted by kicker magazine, the side were recently voted most likely to claim the title this term.