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Survival of the fittest: Werder Bremen win relegation playoff, stay up in the Bundesliga

After defeating Heidenheim away, Werder pull off one of the best escapes from the bottom in league history.

1. FC Heidenheim - Werder Bremen Photo by Tom Weller/picture alliance via Getty Images

Less than three minutes into the game, Heidenheim’s Noran Theuerkauf looked to clear an attacking chance. He did so by launching a shot into the top left corner of his own net.

Heidenheim didn’t recover in time, and after an entire season of struggling to find their form, SV Werder Bremen will be back in the Bundesliga next season. A tough 0-0 draw in the reverse fixture at the Weser-Stadion showed the defensive quality in both teams, and the early slip up was one too many for the underdogs.

After a first half defined by Werder Bremen’s domination of possession, Heidenheim poured on the chances early and often in the second half. It seemed that at times, the moment got to them as they missed three clear chances within the first five minutes. Werder also missed their fair share of chances and braced themselves for a wild ride to the finish if Heidenheim could find the net.

Heidenheim’s prayers were answered in the 84’ from Tim Kleindienst, who cleaned up a shot off the crossbar to put the pressure on.

But after a clearance from the Bremen back line in stoppage time, Fin Bartels shoved off a weak tackle and teed up a centering pass to Ludwig Augustinsson. The Swedish defender tucked it away to make things 2-1.

A late penalty decision let Kleindienst put another in the back of the net to tie things up 2-2, but Die Grün-Weißen won the final tie of Bundesliga action for the 2019/20 season on away goals.

In addition to the first leg of this playoff, this was the third time this season these two teams met. They drew each other in the second round of the DFB Pokal, where Bremen put on a scoring display, beating Heidenheim 4-1.

Two Stories, Two Hopefuls

All season, Werder Bremen seemed like they had all the pieces and talent to challenge for a Europa League spot. When going down their roster, the names pop out like a future world-beating 11: Jiri Pavlenka in goal, Agustinsson on the back line, a midfield with Maximilian Eggestein and Leonardo Bittencourt paired nicely with Milot Rashica, Yuya Osako, and Josh Sargent up front. In addition, veterans like Ömer Toprak, Kevin Vogt, Niclas Füllkrug, and Davy Klaassen brought more quality to the team. Yet, somehow, they were never put it all together until the very end of the year.

For all their faults, what Bremen pulled off shouldn’t be understated. For 22 weeks of the 34 in the Bundesliga season, the Green-Whites were in the bottom four places, spending 14 weeks in an automatic relegation spot. The effort, in these last few games, to fight until the final day to land this playoff spot and then to win over two legs is undoubtedly one of the greatest survival campaigns in Bundesliga history.

Meanwhile, it was a miracle of a season for Werder’s opponents from Baden-Württemberg. There was hope in Heidenheim that they could pull off the impossible this year. Impressive results against sides like Hanover 96 and title-winners Arminia Bielefeld saw Heidenheim stay in the top five of the table for most of the year. Phenomenal performances from players like Tim Kleindienst, who bagged 14 goals in 28 games, back line stalwarts Marnon Busch and Patrick Mainka, and midfield phenom Niklas Dorsch buoyed this team’s hopes and saw them fight for the playoff spot until the last day of the season.

Heidenheim needed a result on the penultimate weekend against fellow playoff hopefuls Hamburger SV to control their own destiny. After a HSV own-goal in the 80’ drew the game, a 90+5’ goal from Konstantin Kerschbaumer saw the Red and Blue take the win. The following week, they watched as Hamburg lost and they earned the right to fight another day.

For those who haven’t heard much of 1. FC Heidenheim, the story of this season is just another remarkable one in the club’s short lived history. After the parent company Heidenheimer SB re-organized and spun the football team into its own entity in 2007, the club began their time in the 5th division of German football. Within two years, they achieved two promotions to make it to the 3. Liga and won the league in the 2013-14 season. What may be even more remarkable is that head coach Frank Schmidt has been at the helm of the team since their journey started 13 years ago.

So, while many fans hoped for this club to make their Bundesliga debut, it was not a one time only shot. The team still has exceptional quality and it’s very reasonable that they take another crack at promotion next year.

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