Cologne - For fans of four-time Bundesliga champions SV Werder Bremen, ’s blossoming form must represent something of a hark back to the halcyon days of the mid-noughties.
South American tradition
The Argentinian striker goes into Sunday’s Nordderby clash away to traditional northern adversaries Hamburger SV on a joint league-high six goals for the season, leading to inevitable comparisons in some quarters with two of the club's more exotic recruits of yesteryear.
“He’s just superb and good for the whole club,” enthused recently anointed Bremen head coach Viktor Skripnik following the former Wigan Athletic FC man's two-goal salvo at 1. FSV Mainz 05 on Matchday 10. “He’s a lot of fun and really easy-going about everything.” Although Di Santo was unable to add to his domestic haul a week later in the team’s first home win of the season against rock-bottom VfB Stuttgart, he remains the very personification of the die Grün-Weißen’s steady revival.
The River Islanders, after all, have previous form in the South American import market. Brazilian forward Ailton became the first foreign player to win the German Footballer of the Year award after helping Thomas Schaaf’s side to a league and cup double in 2003/04, while Peruvian icon Claudio Pizarro netted the first goal of his second spell at the club in the 2008/09 UEFA Cup semi-final triumph over none other than Hamburg. Those heady days might feel like a distant memory after years of seemingly perpetual transition, but Di Santo’s goals have, for the time being at least, helped arrest the slide.
Bragging rights on the line
Indeed, back-to-back league victories over Mainz and VfB Stuttgart have hauled Bremen off the foot of the table and up to 16th, with Skripnik enjoying a three-match winning run in all competitions since replacing Robin Dutt in the coaching hotseat last month. As well as continuing the upward trend, a fourth straight success this weekend in the regional derby would further underscore the former Werder defensive stalwart and reserve team coach’s credentials as an unassuming club hero.
“I suppose I’m a mix of both [previous title-winning coaches Otto Rehhagel and Schaaf]: tough, knowledgeable and humane,” Skripnik explained. “The important thing was that both strove to be successful. We’re men and we always want to be where the action’s at. Games against Hamburg are games against Hamburg - everyone knows what that means. It’s a derby so you have to be on it from the get-go, but it’s a football match, not a war. Three points are up for grabs - nothing more, nothing less.”
121 kilometres up the A1, Josef Zinnbauer’s transition from Under-23 head coach to first-team strategist at Hamburg has not been quite so smooth, although the 44-year-old does at least appear to have his players singing from the same hymn sheet following Mirko Slomka’s departure in September. Despite holding defending champions FC Bayern München to a goalless draw and recording wins over Borussia Dortmund and Bayer 04 Leverkusen, the port city outfit remain second from bottom of the table and have spent just two matchdays outside the relegation zone all season. A division-low four goals scored in 11 games tells its own tale as well.
“Hamburg’s campaign shouldn’t be about beating the drop,” noted TV pundit and former HSV defender Stefan Schnoor, before turning his sights on the club’s struggles in front of goal. “It’s not fair to compare Pierre-Michel Lasogga to the world’s best. He gets himself in good positions, but often the service is lacking. It’s tough when you're not on the top of your game.” One man who certainly is, however, is Bremen’s Di Santo, and the stage is set for the 25-year-old sharpshooter in the 101st instalment of the most oft-played rivalry in Bundesliga history. “He’s still got plenty of goals to score for us,” warned Werder sporting director Thomas Eichin. “He’s playing really well and can get even better.”