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Justin Njinmah fires Bremen to win as Naby Keita makes debut

September 24, 2023

Back in the Bundesliga after his free transfer from Liverpool, Guinean star Naby Keita made his long-awaited debut for Werder Bremen. But it was a German-Nigerian super-sub who was the match-winner against Cologne.

Naby Keita and Justin Njinmah celebrate after Werder Bremen's 2-1 win over Cologne
Back in the Bundesliga: Guinean international Naby KeitaImage: Marco Steinbrenner/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

Naby Keita clearly intends to make up for lost time.

The Guinean international finally made his Werder Bremen debut on Saturday, making a cameo appearance as an injury-time substitute against Cologne, but he still managed to find time to fire off two dangerous shots which flew just wide.

"We're pleased to see him back on the pitch," said Bremen coach Ole Werner after the 2-1 win. "It's been a long road, but everyone's done a great job: the medical department, the fitness coach and the rehab team. Even in his few minutes today, you saw what quality he has. He's making a solid impression."

After managing only 49 Premier League starts across five injury-hit seasons with Liverpool, during which time he spent 476 days out injured and missed 86 games, Keita joined Bremen on a free transfer this summer, returning to a league in which he had excelled for RB Leipzig between 2016 and 2018.

Shirts with Keita's name on them became an instant best-seller in the Werder club shop, but the risky nature of the deal appeared to be confirmed when the 28-year-old picked up a hamstring problem ahead of a pre-season game.

"He made an unfortunate movement during the warm-up," said sporting director Clemens Fritz, but denied any suggestions that Keita was fundamentally injury-prone, pointing to recent appearances for Guinea against Egypt (90 minutes) and Brazil (74). "He's just played almost two full internationals, and our training has also been very intense," said Fritz.

Keita therefore sat out Werder's first four Bundesliga games and indeed 90 minutes of the fifth against Cologne, with head coach Werner turning instead to another substitute, who made an even greater immediate impact.

Justin Njinmah scores the winner for Werder Bremen against Cologne
"He's not exactly slow": Cologne couldn't handle Justin Njinmah's pace when he came onImage: Kokenge/nordphoto/picture alliance

Justin Njinmah: from Borussia Dortmund to Werder Bremen

Justin Njinmah had only been on the pitch a matter of seconds when he drifted away from Cologne defender Jeff Chabot on the right wing before running in behind to latch onto Senne Lynen's through-ball.

With his first touch of the game, he took the ball into the penalty area and, with his second, he finished calmly passed Marwin Schwäbe to put Bremen 2-1 up and on course for their second win of the season.

"We're very satisfied with him," said Werner, who has been aware with Njinmah since working together at second-division club Holstein Kiel. "He carries out his role well and has once again made the difference for us."

Because it wasn't the first time this season that the 22-year-old German-Nigerian has made an impact off the bench; after coming on with 14 minutes remaining against Mainz on matchday three, he scored one goal and set up another to cap off a 4-0 win.

Having scored goals in the fourth tier for both Holstein Kiel's and Bremen's reserves, and 18 in the third division for Borussia Dortmund's under-23s, Njinmah is proving a threat at any level – so much so that Dortmund were keen to make his loan deal permanent for around €1m this summer, according to the Weser Kurier.

"We'd like to keep him and are looking to extend his deal," BVB U23 head coach Ingo Preuss confirmed to the Ruhr Nachrichten. But, despite a 21-minute substitute appearance for Dortmund in a 0-3 defeat away at RB Leipzig last season, Njinmah wanted a clearer path to the first team squad and opted for a return to Bremen, much to the satisfaction of his teammates.

"Justin's great to throw on, because he's not exactly slow," said Bremen captain and former Germany defender Niklas Stark on Saturday. "As a defender, when you've already been running around for 70 minutes and then another arrow comes off the bench, that's not easy. We're glad we have him, he offers the team great deal."

Njinmah himself, however, was unavailable for comment. "He should just concentrate on his football for the time being," head coach Werner told a disappointed Sky reporter. "And that's what he's doing."

Like Keita, he has time.

DW Matthew Ford Sports
Matt Ford Reporter and editor for DW Sports specializing in European football, fan culture & sports politics.@matt_4d