The reemergence of 1. FC Köln from early-season slumming in the relegation zone back into a battle for third place has, not coincidentally, mirrored the season of the club’s most valued commodity: Christian Clemens.
The 21-year-old winger emerged as a bright spot in the spectacular disaster that was the 2011-12 season that was capped by the city’s most-beloved player, Lukas Podolski, walking off the pitch after a season-ending dismantling by FC Bayern that cemented Köln in a direct-relegation spot accompanied by some “fans” smoke-bombing the stadium and storming the field.
When the smoke finally dissipated, two things were certain about the future of the Cathedral City’s first club seemed clear: the Effzeh was going to have to start a rebuild from the second league and Clemens would be a key figure in the looming youth movement.
Clemens’ recent run of form has seen him score four goals in his club’s last seven matches, including an injury time beauty against Erzgebirge Aue which helped the home team grab three crucial points and an early-match free-kick strike that was ultimately the only goal in the emotional return of head coach Holger Stanislawski to face his long-time former club, St. Pauli.
The “Sunday Strike” against Aue.
When Clemens started his scoring tear in his squad’s last home match of 2012, Köln seemed stuck in the middle of the table after fighting their way there from near the bottom, despite losing just once over the last eleven matches of the year. Clemens’ lack of thrust in the attack was often criticized as part of an overall inability of the team to score goals; he simply did not seem to carry the same promise he had shown the prior season.
Whatever the reason for the early slump, Clemens is now clearly clicking, as is Köln, extending their run of form into the new year to reach 11 games without a loss and earning points in 15 of the last 16 match days, allowing the Geißböcke to jump from 9th to 4th in the table, just three points behind FC Kaiserslautern, who currently sit in the relegation-playoff spot, but certainly can hear their fellow former-Bundesliga side creeping up from behind.
Even should Köln continue their torrid pace, the best they are likely to achieve is third, leaving promotion back to the top flight of the Bundesliga a relative uncertainty.
What remains relatively certain, however, is that Clemens’ stock is on the rise at a good time for a young player whose contract expires in the summer of 2014. Should 1. FC Köln fail in its quest to achieve a quick return to the main league, can the club, which reportedly lost nearly 9 million Euro in the 2010-11 fiscal year, afford to keep their budding young star? Or, will they be forced to flip their most-valuable asset into funds to help fix a money hemorrhage and continue the rebuilding of the squad through less-expensive talent?
The club reportedly spurred an offer from FC Schalke to purchase Clemens in last summer’s transfer window, ostensibly hoping the hometown kid would become a fan favorite as he became a driving force toward a quick return to the Bundesliga. Without promotion or a contract extension, however, a club looking to restock the shelves is unlikely to risk losing the player without compensation.
Essentially, Christian Clemens is asserting himself to be a talent too big to be contained within the second league. Should his club prove itself to need at least one more year before being ready to play with the big boys, the reality may be that it would be time for Clemens to move on.
And, like Podolski before him, it will be a sad departure for Effzeh fans.
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