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Werder Bremen fighting to stop historic relegation

DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — It wasn't meant to be this way for Werder Bremen, trudging off the field reflecting on another missed opportunity as Bayern Munich celebrated winning another German league title.

Werder started the season with hopes of qualifying for European competition. Instead, the four-time league champions are now facing relegation for the first time in nearly four decades. Tuesday's 1-0 loss to Bayern showed Werder at its best, combative and stubborn as it nearly earned a valuable point — or more — against the best team in the league.

When Bayern had Alphonso Davies sent off with 11 minutes remaining, Werder went for all-out attack and only a superb save from Manuel Neuer stopped Yuya Osako from making it 1-1. A day later, relegation rival Fortuna Düsseldorf did get a valuable point against a big team, scraping to a late 2-2 draw against Leipzig.

That leaves Werder needing to score points in at least one of its last two games to avoid dropping out of the top division for the first time since 1981. Its next chance to overhaul Fortuna comes Saturday against Mainz, then against Cologne a week later.

Werder's late push against Bayern was an outlier in a season full of second-half collapses and persistently poor defending on set pieces. Corners and free kicks have accounted for nearly a third of the 65 goals that Werder has conceded in the Bundesliga this season.

Werder's season was expected to be a breakout year for 20-year-old United States national team forward Josh Sargent and a swansong for 41-year-old club great Claudio Pizarro, led by up-and-coming 37-year-old coach Florian Kohfeldt. It hasn't turned out that way.

Sargent has three goals from 26 games, and none since the Bundesliga restarted last month. Pizarro is scoreless in 16 league appearances off the bench. Instead, the bright light has been Kosovo winger Milot Rashica with a team-leading seven goals. Regardless of whether Werder survives in the Bundesliga, Rashica is likely to leave for a bigger club in the offseason.

The coronavirus pandemic has banished fans from the Bundesliga stadiums, but a conflict between Werder's fans and management is still simmering. Organized fan groups are irate at a deal to sell the naming rights to the 73-year-old Weserstadion.

Since the deal was announced last year, banners with sponsor Wohninvest's name have been stolen or vandalized, and in December fans hung a black cloth to obscure the view from the company's box at the stadium.

German soccer is accustomed to seeing its all-time greats decline. Bayern and Borussia Dortmund may still lead the pack but the likes of Hamburg and Stuttgart have already dropped into the second division. Storied club Kaiserslautern is in the third division and in bankruptcy protection.

If Werder can't find another gear for the end of the season, it could be the latest big club to leave the biggest stage.

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