As Werder Bremen's players traipsed off the field following a 1-0 defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach on February 11, the whistles of the Weser Stadium faithful ringing in their ears, few would have been able to imagine anything other than another serious survival struggle.
The northern side dropped below their local rivals Hamburg into the uncomfortable relegation play-off berth, just a point ahead of Ingolstadt - the side they beat 4-2 on Matchday 30 - in 17th. With just four wins from 20 games, the future was looking particularly bleak for a side who have become all too accustomed to such situations in recent years. "We've somehow fallen into a spiral and our self-confidence is slipping away," said a forlorn Robert Bauer. "If you lose four in a row, then you can't keep calling it bad luck."
That honest yet equally damning assessment was shared at a crisis meeting behind closed doors 24 hours later. Coach Alexander Nouri was publicly backed by his sporting director Frank Baumann, who demanded more from the players, telling them he would be "looking closely in the coming weeks and months at who is worthy of wearing a Werder shirt."
Two months later, Baumann has the answers he was seeking. Bremen's players have stepped up to the plate and responded to the call to reveal their identity, and a startling transformation has ensued. Ten games on, Bremen are no longer like lambs to the slaughter. They are fearsome rather than fearful. Since 11 February, the resurgent northerners have the best record in the Bundesliga - eight wins and two draws - and rather than scrapping for survival, they are now pushing for one of those near-miracles that only football appears capable of providing: a place in Europe next season.
A week after bottoming out, Bremen bounced back, with a goal from Serge Gnabry and a stunner from Thomas Delaney earning them a much-needed 2-0 win at Mainz and their first three points of 2017. Three more followed a week later when a Gnabry brace earned Bremen a 2-1 victory over Wolfsburg.
Watch: Delaney hit a superb hat-trick as Bremen thrashed Freiburg on Matchday 26:
The mettle of a resurgent Bremen side was tested following a subsequent 2-0 win over Darmstadt when Gnabry picked up an injury, but Nouri did not panic. Showing intelligent tactical flexibility, he reverted from the 4-4-2 formation he had used to stop the rot in the previous three games to a mutation of the 3-5-2 which had not been bringing success up to then. This time, though, things were different.
Even without Gnabry, a draw and a further three wins followed – including a 3-0 triumph over high-flying RB Leipzig. There was something new about this Bremen side; something almost unfathomable.
Watch: Bremen flex their muscles against title challengers Leipzig:
Something clicked, with winter recruit Delaney revelling in his new advanced role as Nouri tinkered even more on his masterplan - which metamorphosed into something akin to a 3-1-2-2-2. A hat-trick from the Dane against Freiburg saw Bremen's rise continue unabated and that self-confidence, which Bauer said had been slipping away, was suddenly back by the bucket load.
It helped that Felix Wiedwald was able to pick up some clean sheets – four in eight games following that Mainz wake-up win – and of course Max Kruse has also finally lit the blue touch paper. With nine goals in his last seven appearances, and 11 in 2017 all told, the 29-year-old has rediscovered the form which had him down as a regular in the Germany national team set-up just a year ago.
You want goals? The colossal @max.kruse10 can happily provide. The @werderbremen star scored all FOUR for his team who beat #Ingolstadt. Tore gefällig?! Koloss @max.kruse10 kann da liefern. Der @werderbremen-Star erzielte alle vier Tore für sein Team gegen #Ingolstadt. #Football #Fussball #Soccer #Bundesliga
After his remarkable four-goal salvo against Ingolstadt, international football could be calling Kruse again in the near future, although not necessarily because Germany coach Joachim Löw picks up the phone. With four games of the season to go, Bremen are just two points shy of the top six and what would be a quite outstanding place in the UEFA Europa League next season.
It is a far cry from that forsaken February afternoon when Bremen put their heads together and, like a phoenix from the flames, rose from the ashes with a blend of astute tactics, defensive discipline, midfield mavericks and Kruse's missiles up top. Nouri's men are now one of the firm form favourites heading down the final furlong with European football beckoning Bremen back. After a six-year absence, it could soon be the Europa League anthem rather than those February whistles reverberating around the Weser Stadium.