- Associated Press - Thursday, April 20, 2017

BERLIN (AP) - Previously bottom of the Bundesliga, Werder Bremen is now even thinking of European qualification after a remarkable turnaround under new coach Alexander Nouri.

Only league leader Bayern Munich has claimed more points since the winter break.

Last weekend’s 2-1 win at home over old rival Hamburger SV lifted Bremen to eighth. It’s just two points behind Freiburg in sixth - the last spot to guarantee a European place - and one behind Cologne in seventh, which may be enough depending on results in the German Cup.

Nouri is just thinking of his next game on Saturday.

“We’re not looking anywhere else,” Nouri said. “We’re focused on the next opponent, and that’s called Ingolstadt.”

Nouri’s side is unbeaten in nine games since a 1-0 defeat to Borussia Moenchengladbach on Feb. 11, clocking up seven victories in that run which helped it escape the relegation zone. With five games remaining, Bremen appears safe, seven points clear of Augsburg in the relegation playoff place.

Nouri, Bremen’s former under-23 coach, endured a mixed start after taking over from the fired Viktor Skripnik in September. But he has transformed the side since the winter break, helping players shed the insecurity that led to mistakes earlier in the season.

There were encouraging signs in narrow defeats to Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich before the unbeaten run started against Mainz. Results helped the team grow in confidence as players saw their hard work pay off.

Midfielder Fin Bartels is playing like he’s just discovered the joy of football, Zlatko Junuzovic is similarly liberated, and Max Kruse has scored five goals and set up four more in his last six games. Bremen top-scorer Serge Gnabry’s absence due to a thigh problem has hardly been noticed.

Now it seems odd that Bremen was ever involved in a relegation scrap in the first place.

“Our confidence is booming,” Bremen defender Niklas Moisander said on Wednesday.

Bremen’s run-in is far from straightforward, starting at Ingolstadt which is fighting for survival, before Bremen plays European-qualification rivals Hertha Berlin, Cologne, Hoffenheim and Dortmund.

Bremen’s players remain cautious with relegation-battle memories still fresh.

“The fans are welcome to sing about Europe, we did too a bit,” Bartels said. “You can peer at what’s going on up there for one or two days, but we’re staying careful. Our focus is on the next game and the 40-point mark.”

Bremen is only a point off that 40-point mark and a win in the next round could even move it past Cologne and Freiburg. Cologne hosts Hoffenheim and Freiburg welcomes Bayer Leverkusen.

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