Hinrunde Review: A False Start, a Surge, and an Existential Question for 1. FC Köln

You would think the indignity of a large club being relegated would signal a bottoming-out.

Then that same large club spends six of the first seven weeks in the relegation zone, scoring only one goal the first five weeks and remember, “it can always get worse.”

Despite knowing that the club had necessarily jettisoned all of its big-money contracts and, hence, its big-name talent, some fans had already begun to question, albeit hesitatingly, whether new trainer Holger Stanislawski had been the right man for the job.

Hinrunde

The Stanislawski era at the Geißbockheim got off to a dubious start. The first six games of FC Köln’s return to the second league earned the team a mere two points, largely due to an inability to convert goal-scoring opportunities into actual goals. The only two goals scored in that faltering start came from the penalty spot.

After a Tobias Strobl strike early in the second half of match day seven ended the goal drought, the Effzeh went on unbeaten streaks of five and seven matches sandwiched around a 2:0 loss at Aalen.

Ultimately, 2012 ended with a DFB Cup third-round exit to VfB Stuttgart in a game that was a microcosm of the Kölners’ season to date: fall behind early while looking hopeless before surging into relevance, all soundtracked by great fan support, regardless of result.

Despite the surge, which took the club from the relegation zone in late September into the middle of the table by the break, the issues that haunted Stani’s squad early seemed to also keep the Effzeh from fully taking advantage of what was, at times, completely dominant play.

Never were there a better example of this than at home against league leader Eintrach Braunschweig.

With an opportunity to avenge a season-opening loss in Braunschweig, Köln dominated possession in the second half, seeming to seize all three points in the 88th minute when Anthony Ujah put his head to a corner kick into the net scoring his seventh since joining the team on loan in late August as well as what appeared to be a season-defining turning point.

We should all have known what was coming.

A corner awarded in extra time, after what was one of the rare appearances of the ball in Köln’s defensive half of the pitch, found the ground in front of the net and, after some chaotic scrambling, its way past Timo Horn, providing the equalizer and the end result.

The Hinrunde finished with an unspectacular scoreless draw at relegation-favorite SV Sandhausen, leaving fans to wonder what might have been and what might be to come?

Winter Roster Changes

Considering a call from the front office to rebuild through youth and announcements of financial issues within the club, it is no surprise there has been little tinkering on the roster during the transfer window.

The biggest move (measuring in at over 2 meters!) comes in the form the free transfer of Stefan Maierhofer from Red Bull Salzburg, where the former Austrian national player had become largely an afterthought, much like the departing Chong Tese who was finally set free from Köln thanks to a sale to Suwon Blue Wings of the Korean K-League.

Tese never gave any indication he could potentially be a resolution to the lack of a quality goal-scoring threat on the Köln roster. Maierhofer, on the other hand, has already made his presence known in the test matches during the winter break, scoring twice. While you don’t want to read much into results in friendly matches, it is at least something to temper concern over adding a guy who couldn’t crack a line-up in the Austrian Bundesliga.

A late transfer window move was the loan-in of Bruno Andrade de Toledo Nascimento, who doesn’t quite make the 2-meter mark (1.78 is by no means short), but definitely outdoes Maierhofer in the length-of-name department. Nascimento brings speed and youth to a central backfield which has been continually exploited for a lack thereof. 1 FC Köln holds an option to purchase, giving the young Brazilian plenty of reason to show his wares over the next few months.

Looking Ahead: The Negatives

Had the Effzeh cleared the late corner against Braunschweig and carried that momentum into a season-ending victory at Sandhausen, earning six points the last two weeks rather than the two they actually have, 1. FC Köln would sit in fourth place, just two points behind third place Kaiserslautern, and the path forward would be unquestionable: chase the promotion spot.

This is, of course, not what happened, and the team instead sits in place 9, still only 6 points out of the relegation playoff spot, but looking up at five teams at least one step ahead of them and all at least as hungry as the Effzeh for a taste of first-league excitement and finances.

Also, building on the negative public image of the club established in the smoke bomb-plagued season finale at Rheinenergiestadion, the club parted ways with central defender Kevin Pezzoni in the wake of fans leveling threats of physical violence against him for his role in a 2:0 loss at the hands of Erzgebirge Aue, a team who had also been struggling to score early in the season.

Whatever the direction in 2013, the team will be without one of the few established offensive playmakers, as oft-injured Adil Chihi continues to rehabilitate an injured thigh suffered in early December.

The fact is, should the second half of the season begin as the first half did, Stanislawski will be faced with the reality of needing to either continue to battle for a mid-table finish using borrowed talent (Ujah and Daniel Royer) who will almost definitely return to their home clubs in the summer, or risk finishing near the bottom while developing some of the younger players with more appearances in the squad. As long as a promotion spot is within sight, Köln will be expected to try to achieve it, but the overall health of the rebuilding process could be at risk in its pursuit.

Looking Ahead: The Positves

A team losing just once in 13 matches is generally considered to be a positive situation, even if it is very easy to look at individual missed opportunities for some of those draws to have been three-point victories.

The late-season draws with the top two teams in the league both came when the team aligned in a 4-4-2 double six, potentially shifting a change in approach from Stani, who had relied heavily on a 4-2-3-1 for much of the Hinrunde. The added support in the attack has to be considered an acknowledgement of the lack of thrust up front. While Ujah has been brilliant in spots, the frequent dominance in ball possession by the team has resulted in a curious lack of quality scoring chances. Could a second striker open more space for Ujah? It could be up to Maierhofer to become that added threat to either relieve defensive pressure on his partner or take advantage of the attention paid to him.

Also, thanks to a wonderful scoring strike from midfielder Christian Clemens, fans are optimistically hoping for a return to form by a player who had shown much promise last season in the first league, but has largely been invisible during the current campaign. Should Clemens truly be on his way back to form, and Royer carries his positive momentum into February, things could get interesting in the Cathedral City as the team sets up for a remarkable second half.

Fittingly, the Rückrunde kicks-off when Aue visits on Saturday, giving both the team and the fans a chance to set the tone for the next 15 match days by either exercising some ghosts or by continuing themes already established.

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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.

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