The course of the season so far must appear familiar to many FC Köln supporters. The team from Cologne did not start last season as they hoped but, as in the previous year, they got back on track in time for Christmas. A derby win against the Werkself in 2019 provided the initial impetus and in 2020 it could have been the surprise away win at Borussia Dortmund. The penny seemed to have dropped after the first win of the season at the Signal Iduna Park. FC Köln produced a battling performance to earn a 2-2 draw at the in-form VfL Wolfsburg and that was followed on Saturday by an eminently important 1-0 win at Mainz 05. "The atmosphere is now relaxed for all of us," said coach Markus Gisdol at the pre-match press conference ahead of the derby. "That makes it easier." The win at Mainz gives FC Köln a three-point lead over the play-off place and puts them five points clear of a direct relegation spot. An additional factor: The team from Cologne have by far the best goal difference at the bottom end of the table – that is also due to FC Köln having mainly played very well in the five defeats to date with only four ending by a margin of greater than one goal and that was against Bayern Munich. A clear sign that Gisdol's team can compete with any other side in the Bundesliga..
There was some bad news from the game at Mainz from an FC Köln perspective. Ondrej Duda was sent off for two bookable offences and will now miss the derby against Bayer 04. A bitter blow as the Slovak is the source of creativity and dangerous set pieces for the team from Cologne. Up to now, the new signing from Hertha Berlin has started every Bundesliga game and is the top scorer and provider in Gisdol's squad with two goals and three assists. "It's a pity he's missing," bemoaned the FC Köln coach. "He's in very good form."
But how will Gisdol make up for the absence of Duda against the Werkself? "We have several options for this position," he said. One of those could be Jonas Hector. The former Germany international suffered a neck injury on matchday two and has been sidelined since. But now the captain is back in full training. He was a possibility for the game against Mainz but did not make the squad in the end. And on Wednesday? Gisdol is keeping his cards close to his chest. "Every training session he completes does him good," said the coach. We'll talk to each other before the squad's picked."
Another alternative for a return to the starting line-up could be Sebastian Andersson. The Swedish centre forward underwent a knee operation in November, then complained about pain due to overwork and he missed the game against Dortmund. But he was back in the squad for the last two matches and made a brief appearance against Wolfsburg.
One thing is certain: Both Hector and Andersson are different types of player from Duda and Gisdol will have to do make appropriate alterations to his system.
In terms of defending, FC Köln are in the top half of the table in most relevant categories. And the total of 17 goals conceded after 11 games does not sound like a relegation battle but instead is the exactly same number as teams like Bayern Munich, Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfB Stuttgart. Gisdol likes an extremely solid basic organisation and he often makes his team defend very deep. That makes it incredibly difficult for opposition sides to score. The key players in the Köln defence are central defender Sebastiaan Bornauw and goalkeeper Timo Horn who have also been in fine form in recent weeks. In addition, the 19-year-old central defender Sava-Arangel Cestic, who made his debut at Dortmund, has recently been incredibly calm alongside Bornauw in spite of his limited experience.
Playing with the ball could be a problem particularly after the loss of Duda. The Slovak's form on the day this season has often determined how FC Köln have played. Possession football is definitely not a trademark of Gisdol's team, which has the lowest number of passes in the league and the second lowest number of completed passes. FC Köln are also wanting in comparison with the rest of the league in terms of shots on goal and clear-cut chances. The result: Köln rely on attacking set pieces with only seven goals coming from open play.
As soon as Hector and Andersson are fully fit, Gisdol will have two absolutely key players available who can significantly increase the quality of the Köln game. The Goats have recently proved that they can compete with the top teams in the league – not only did they beat Borussia Dortmund but also came close to picking up a point against FC Bayern. Bayer 04 can therefore expect a tough derby encounter.
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