Our next opponents: A physical team with staying power

Three days after the 3-2 defeat away to Atalanta in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 16, Bayer 04 entertain FC Köln in the 68th Bundesliga derby at the BayArena. The Cologne team are having an impressive season and will look to produce an intensive display against the Werkself on Sunday 13 March (kick-off: 15.30 CET) as in the 2-2 draw earlier in the season.


After the 1-0 home defeat against TSG Hoffenheim last weekend, there was not too much frustration at FC Köln. "There were some positives," noted Jörg Jakobs. In terms of tactics and running they "were on equal terms with a very good Hoffenheim team," continued the sporting director. Midfielder Salih Özcan added: "You couldn't see much difference. We had our chances but didn't take them in the end." The FC Köln management were not unhappy the week before with a 1-1 draw away to bottom of the table SpVgg Greuther Fürth. "We've come a step closer to our target. I can't see any negatives," said head of the first team squad Thomas Kessler in reference to the 40 points that should be enough to stay up. "We're four short," declared the former goalkeeper.

The team from Cologne have already clocked up 36 points and 36 goals (two more goals than in the whole of last season) after 25 games. They are having their best season in five years when they had one more point at the same stage in the season and ended up in fifth place. Relegation to the second division followed at the end of the next campaign. And since going straight back up, FC Köln have battled against relegation in the past two seasons. That is why head coach Steffen Baumgart, who took over this term, keeps on reminding people "where we come from." The 50-year-old coach puts a dampener on ambitious expectations that one or two fans may have after the 1-0 win against Eintracht Frankfurt on matchday 23 that put them two points short of a Champions League spot. The gap between FC Köln in eighth and Hoffenheim in fourth place is now seven points. For the club management it is much more important that there is a comfortable lead of 13 points over the play-off spot.


Team captain Jonas Hector return to full training on Wednesday after missing the game against Hoffenheim for personal reasons. Ahead of the derby at Bayer 04, everybody's obviously over the moon about that on the other side of the Rhine as: "Jonas is the most important player at the club. We like to talk about Tony's (Anthony Modeste, ed.) goals but Jonas is the quality player who leads the way." That was the praise from head coach Steffen Baumgart for his captain and left-back before his 300th appearance for FC Köln in the game against Greuther Fürth. And central defender Timo Hübers returned to training after illness so that Baumgart has all his defenders available again. Benno Schmitz is always reliable on the right side of the back four with with the 27-year-old defender making 24 starts this season.

The coach relies on two "workhorses" (quote from Baumgart) in holding midfield in the shape of the hard-running and strong-tackling Salih Özcan and Ellyes Skhiri. The Austria international Florian Kainz is an automatic first choice, mostly playing on the left flank. His fellow countrymen Dejan Ljubicic has recently played on the right wing.

Baumgart may well have to make a change in the position of playmaker against the Werkself on Sunday: Mark Uth missed training due to illness on Wednesday. It is possible that the Slovak Ondrej Duda, last season's top scorer and provider for FC Köln, may return to the starting eleven. FC are more than ever reliant on the goalscoring of Anthony Modeste in attack and he's often played as the lone striker this season but also alongside the Swede Sebastian Andersson on occasions.


FC Köln have almost always played intensive football with a great physical presence this season. FC have won the third most balls of all the Bundesliga teams this term with their quick challenges and pressing, and much of the attacking threat comes down the wings. No other team has put in as many crosses as the Baumgart players. The Werkself will have to be aware of high balls: FC Köln are top of the headed goals table. The eighth-placed team have scored 13 goals that way with Modeste netting nine of them. Evidence that our neighbours have staying power is shown by their 13 goals in the last 15 minutes in games, the third highest number in the league. We remember: In the reverse fixture, FC came from two goals down to draw 2-2 against Bayer 04 thanks to a brace from Modeste (63 and 83 minutes). And FC Köln – together with Hoffenheim – are also top in the league rankings with their four goals in added time.


The attacking football favoured by Baumgart also presents risks: If there is no cover when possession is lost then Köln are susceptible to quick counter-attacks. No other team in the Bundesliga has had conceded more counter-attacks than FC Köln (30) and no other team has let in more goals through that (seven). The focus up front is on Anthony Modeste. The French striker has scored 15 of Köln's 36 goals. His strike partner Sebastian Andersson has only scored twice in his 23 games. Even though FC are one of the teams with the highest number of shots on goal in the league with 348, their accuracy (39%) and conversion rate (13%) is more of a disappointing return.


Steffen Baumgart's approach to the game goes down well with the team and fans. There is a new team spirit under the Rostock-born coach. With all the joy about the impressive season to date, players and management are avoiding the euphoric environment amongst the fans as staying up remains the primary target. They do not need many more points. The quicker that is dealt with, the sooner Köln may be able to look to qualify for Europe. But now they go into the derby in confident mood. "We can promise we won't give anything away to Leverkusen on Sunday," said the head of the first team squad Thomas Kessler. "It will be a difficult game for them against us."


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