Frankfurt - Though points are the default priority when Eintracht Frankfurt take on SV Werder Bremen on Sunday, home coach Thomas Schaaf will nonetheless be greeting his counterpart on the day - and his assistant - with rather more than a polite handshake before the action gets underway in earnest.
First time against Bremen for Schaaf
Schaaf famously manned the helm for 14 years at Bremen, overseeing one of the most successful periods in the north coast club's history, before stepping aside in 2013. A year and a bit down the line his successor, Robin Dutt, has in turn been replaced by Viktor Skripnik, a diehard very much in the mould of the coach he played under for the bulk of his eight active years at Werder. At Skripnik's side is a true Grün-Weiß legend in the form of Torsten Frings. The combative midfielder racked up 326 top-flight appearances in two separate spells with Bremen, again with Schaaf in charge for all but the first couple of years.
In short, all three protagonists go back a very long way and as such, the Matchday 14 meeting at the Commerzbank Arena will inevitably be even more drenched in nostalgia for Schaaf. A Bremen native since the age of four, he grew up within sight of the Weserstadion and was 11 when he joined the local powerhouse in 1972. 281 senior league appearances would eventually follow and long before he hung up his boots, the rock-steady defender was earning his coaching spurs in the Werder youth system. After four years as reserve team coach, he was promoted to the top job in 1999 - the rest is history.
A significant piece of personal history is now on the cards for Schaaf as, for the first time, he prepares to go up against the club that was an integral part of his life, man and boy, for 41 years. His first season in charge of Eintracht has been an up-and-down affair, but the tendency at the moment is definitely upward with the Eagles having put the brakes on a four-game losing streak with a 3-1 win at Borussia Mönchengladbach, which was followed up with a no less impressive 2-0 home success against struggling Dortmund. Acknowledging the role played by keeper Felix Wiedwald as BVB upped the pressure in the second half, Schaaf said he was “very satisfied with my team all-in-all. Now we have to carry that over into the next games”.
Youth having its day under Skripnik
Starting with Bremen - a team definitively on the rise since Skripnik got bumped up from the reserves at the end of October. The Green-Whites have won four of their five league and cup games to date under the former Ukraine international, with only the Matchday 12 loss at northern arch-rivals Hamburger SV blotting the copybook. They bounced back from that one with a 4-0 demolition of promoted SC Paderborn, adding to the growing body of evidence supporting the assertion of midfielder Zlatko Junuzovic that the new coaching duo are “replanting the Werder gene - we've got to play without fear”.
Junuzovic led by example against Paderborn, opening the scoring with a screamer of a free-kick in the tenth minute. Back-to-back strikes early in the second half from 19-year-old Davie Selke and Fin Bartels effectively killed the game as a contest, before Levent Aycicek marked his first Bundesliga starting appearance by rounding out the scoring with ten minutes to go. Skripnik's faith in his former reserve-team charges was further underpinned by Janek Sternberg's surprise selection at left-back, while Maximilian Eggestein took the ultimate youth prize for a seven-minute cameo off the bench that made him Werder's second-youngest Bundesliga debutant at 17 years, 11 months and 21 days - after a certain Thomas Schaaf.
Similar but different
His willingness to promote young talent is just one of many areas in which Skripnik has inevitably borne immediate comparison with his former mentor. An ability to infuse genuine pride in the badge, combined with a generally understated objectivity, also carries a strong echo of Schaaf, as does the new man's natural inclination towards an attack-orientated short-passing game. That should come as no big surprise given that, “as a player and then later as a youth academy coach, I spent a lot of time talking football with Thomas Schaaf. It's fascinating what we achieved back then, and the way we achieved it”.
The 45-year-old is accordingly “grateful” for that first-hand apprenticeship in the coach's craft but otherwise: “I'm Viktor Skripnik and Thomas Schaaf is Thomas Schaaf. I'm not looking to copy him, that's just media hype. Even so, it's nice to hear the comparison.” Few people would be more pleased than Schaaf himself to see his former protégé lead Bremen back towards something approaching their former status in his own heyday. All deep-seated bonds notwithstanding, however, the visitors will not be expecting any help along the way in Frankfurt on Sunday.