Our next opponents: Köln have to take risks

Off to the other side of the Rhine please. The journey is short but the attraction of the game reaches far beyond the region when Bayer 04 play FC Köln on Sunday (18 March, 15.30 CET). In addition to the exciting atmosphere at every derby, the current position of the two teams also promises a fascinating encounter: FC have to win if they want to stay up. What mood will Köln be in for the derby against Bayer 04?


It's clear you are in a relegation battle when you are eight points away from the play-off place in the Bundesliga. At the same time, FC Köln have not recently looked like a side in trouble. Anybody who has watched FC play over recent weeks will mostly have seen determined performances from a team who are giving their all to avoid the drop to the second tier and are playing like a mid-table side. However: Given the results in the first half of the season with 13 from 17 games ending in defeat then average will not do. FC have not always had the rub of the green lately. Against Werder Bremen, they won more challenges (55%), had more possession (57%) and a better passing rate  (82% to  76%), but, as Claudio Pizarro missed a chance to level at 2-2 late on, they ended up losing 3-1. In order to maintain the chance of staying up, FC Köln need one thing above all else: wins. Draws against strong opponents like Bayer 04 are too little in the current situation.


And coach Stefan Ruthenbeck (pictured with general manager Armin Veh), who has picked up 14 points from 14 games since being appointed in December, is aware that staying up relies completely on wins. As a result, he has recently adopted significantly more attacking formations and usually plays three at the back. Winter signing Vincent Koziello,  a more attacking minded player active in build-up play, has recently been playing in a holding midfield role. The talented Frenchman is not the only winter addition to the squad brought in to breathe new life into Köln. Central striker Simon Terodde, who returned to Cologne from Stuttgart, has scored five goals in nine games for FC helping to overcome the goal drought that affected the Goats in the first half of the season. No other player, who has played the whole season for FC Köln, has managed five goals. One who would have is, without doubt, Leonardo Bittencourt. However, the striker has been ruled out with injury for a long time and only played his first game under Ruthenbeck at the end of February in Leipzig –  when he came off the bench to score the winner at 2-1. The German – Brazilian could be in the starting eleven against Bayer 04 – it would be the first time since November and another ray of hope for his team. Milos Jojic (muscular problem) and Frederik Sörensen (broken nose) will miss the game against the Werkself.


The risk, that Ruthenbeck is and has to take, has led to improvement up front but that does have an effect on the defence. With 46 goals conceded, Köln have the most susceptible defence in the league and goalkeeper Timo Horn has had to pick the ball out of the net 15 times in the last six games. As the players on the wings have to be extremely active going forward in Ruthenbeck's new system and Koziello does not see challenging in central midfield as one of his key strengths, that enables opposition teams to automatically find space between the lines. Even after taking the lead, Köln have been unable to be more compact. Since Ruthenbeck's appointment, the team – as in the 2-1 defeat at the BayArena earlier in the season – were in front in eight out of 14 games but only managed to win four. Ruthenbeck's Bundesliga debut was particularly dramatic as FC threw away a 3-0 lead against SC Freiburg.


The team from Cologne have fielded 31 players this term – the highest number in the league and often a sign of mistakes in building  a squad. In the case of FC Köln, it is also a sign of the club's impressive youth development policy bearing fruit. Lukas Klünter (21), Yann Aurel Bisseck (17), Salih Özcan (20), Chris Führich (20) and Anas Ouahim (20) are five home-grown talents to make first-team appearances this season as they attempt to follow the path taken by first choice keeper Timo Horn. He made his debut for FC in the second division in 2012/13. If Köln do end up playing in the second tier next season then it would present young players from within the club with a big chance of taking the next step.


Even though recent performances have given rise to hope: It is very probable that Sunday's derby fixture will not be repeated next season. FC have too few games left to catch up on rivals who are also not drifting along. Nevvertheless: If FC Köln succeed in being more organised at the back and are able to convert decent performances into wins, at best with a run, then there is still a lot left up in the air: It could still turn out right.

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