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Schalke, Bremen seek rapid improvements to survive European groups

Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen opened their Champions League campaigns on Tuesday in what could optimistically be called wobbly starts for both teams. Improvements are necessary if both are to survive the group stages.

Lyon's Michel Bastos of Brazil, left, challenges for the ball with Schalke's Christoph Moritz

Schalke's horror season continues after losing to Lyon

Schalke 04's disastrous start to the season continued on Tuesday night with the German side recording their fourth straight defeat with a 1-0 loss to Lyon in their first Champions League clash of this campaign. Fellow Bundesliga team Werder Bremen, for their part, showed resolve to fight back from two goals down to draw with Tottenham Hotspur in their European group.

Schalke are one of three Bundesliga teams which have lost all three of their opening games in the Bundesliga – Wolfsburg and Stuttgart being the others. It was hoped that the corner could be turned with victory in their opening Group B game against a Lyon team which has seen better days. Coach Felix Magath was looking for Raul and new signing Klaas Jan Huntelaar to spark in tandem up front and bring some much-needed European experience to his fragile side.

Lyon were never going to be the same pushovers who capitulated to Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of last year's competition. That performance suggested that their period as France's dominant team was well behind them. Moreover, five points from five Ligue 1 games this season suggests that the problems which have ended Lyon's reign have yet to be rectified. And yet, despite this, Schalke were worse, failing to find a way to make the most of Lyon's wastefulness - which will be as worrying to Magath as the result itself.

Schalke's fragile confidence faces tougher challenges ahead

Benedikt Hoewedes's red card seven minutes before half-time certainly didn't help Schalke's cause but the Royal Blues already had that haunted look about them before the defender was sent for an early shower after his poor tackle on Lyon's Jimmy Briand. Michel Bastos' 21st minute goal seemed to sap whatever wavering confidence Schalke had brought with them.

Schalke's head coach Felix Magath (L) reacts during the UEFA Champions League group B soccer match between Olympique Lyon and FC Schalke 04 at the Gerland Stadium in Lyon, France, 14 September 2010.

Felix Magath has a job on his hands to rally his team

This obvious crash of belief undid much of the good work the German team had achieved before going behind and it now appears that Magath faces a challenge to rebuild his team's mental strength if things are to improve. If their game plan goes to pieces - along with their conviction - after going a goal down to a sloppy Lyon side, it must be worrying to consider what might happen against better teams.

Schalke have a tough match against Benfica up next and the Portuguese champions will be no pushover. Despite losing Argentinean winger Angel di Maria to Real Madrid this summer and Brazilian forward Ramires to Chelsea, the Lisbon side signed promising Boca Juniors attacking midfielder Nicolas Gaitan and still have the likes of David Luiz marshalling the back line alongside the ageless Cafu. Schalke will need to drastically improve on their performance against Lyon to get the better of Benfica home and away.

Hapoel Tel Aviv may on paper be the potential whipping boys of Group B but Schalke's trip to Israel on November 2 could prove tricky. Bigger teams than the Royal Blues have made journeys to the Middle East and struggled. But Tel Aviv have never reached the group stages of the Champions League before so Schalke's experience - even in the difficult away leg - should win out, meaning the chance of a second-place finish in the group could still be alive by the time the deciding games come round in December.

Bremen finally wake up and remember how to play

In Group A, Werder Bremen recovered from going two goals behind in the first quarter of an hour to draw 2-2 with Spurs in the Weserstadion. While the Bundesliga team's fightback was worthy of praise, the fact that they found themselves in need of a Lazarus-like recovery with barely 15 minutes gone at home suggests Thomas Schaaf needs to get his players' heads in the game from the off.

Bremen's Marko Marin celebrates after scoring his side's 2nd goal during the Champions League Group A soccer match between Werder Bremen and Tottenham Hotspur in Bremen, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010.

Marko Marin led Werder Bremen's late resurgeance

Bremen have had a mixed start to the domestic season with one win, one defeat and one draw so far. After being thrashed 4-1 by Hoffenheim on the opening day, they trounced Cologne 4-2 and drew 0-0 with champions Bayern Munich. These results suggested that Werder's season may have started on the wrong foot but they were finding their balance again in recent weeks.

However, the opening period against Spurs saw Bremen regress. While Bremen were unlucky to go behind to Petri Pasanen's well-taken own goal, there was no doubt which was the better side in the first 43 minutes. Champions League novices Spurs tore Bremen to pieces after Peter Crouch made it two on 18 minutes. With new signing Rafael van der Vaart pulling the strings in midfield, Spurs could have had four by the break.

But as their rollercoaster season so far has shown, Bremen are far from a predictable team and just when it looked like they would be on the receiving end of another hiding, Hugo Almeida headed them back into the game just before half time. Marko Marin's equalizer two minutes after the restart breathed further life into Bremen as the little German began doing his best Messi impression, running the game with mazy, penetrating bursts with the ball. In the end it was Spurs who were hanging on.

Brains engaged before kick-off against likes of Inter

Werder will have find a way to play like they did in the second half from the first whistle to the last if they are going to escape Group A. They face the daunting task of taking on reigning European champions Inter Milan at the San Siro in their next match and the Italians are unlikely to fritter away any lead they might take.

Inter Milan's Argentine forward Diego Milito celebrates after scoring during a Champions League, round of 16, first leg soccer match between Inter Milan and Chelsea at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010.

Diego Milito and his Inter team mates lay in wait for Bremen

Inter have made a typically workmanlike start to their season under new coach Rafael Benitez but the former Liverpool boss is renowned for plotting successful courses through difficult European waters and his style is unlikely to have and adverse effect on the Nerazzuri’s recent efficiency in this competition. The Italians may have too much class for the Germans, both in Milan and back in Bremen.

With Dutch champions FC Twente still to come in Bremen’s set of group stage games, Werder could have given themselves too much to do in Group A even before the return legs begin in late November. A win against Twente at home would at least keep them in the hunt for a qualification place. Home and away defeats to both Inter and Twente would definitely see Bremen out of the competition before Christmas, even if they manage to beat Spurs at White Hart Lane on November 24.

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann

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