Monday Morning (PST) Center Back

Having survived it, I can say that the only way to watch a back-and-forth slug-fest is for your club to come out on top.

I only mildly attempt to seem partial when it comes to my club, to the point where I’d be shocked if anyone paying attention does not know which club has me as a member.

If you’re in the dark, take as a huge hint that I will start the weekly run-down NOT with the highly anticipated battle of the Borussias, rather one you maybe barely noticed was on the fixture list.

“Just a Karneval club . . .”

On the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month every year the opening of the Karneval season is celebrated vigorously in Köln.

The 1. FC Köln ended the eleventh match day of the season with eleven goals to their credit and having conceded eleven landing them in  . . . tenth place.

Okay, so it can’t all be right on the (big red clown) nose, but that’s a fairly fun way to look at where last season’s second division champion stands after their thrilling 4:3 victory in Hoffenheim (actually, not “in” Hoffenheim, as the TSG plays somewhere else entirely, so it should say “at” Hoffenheim, but if I had done that, then I wouldn’t have had the chance to point out how the club doesn’t even play in its own town) and headed into the dressing rooms to get costumed for Tuesday’s celebrations.

Karneval and a terrific away win for the beloved Effzeh are not the only things being celebrated this week in the Cathedral City, though, because the local team finally again has itself a member of the national team.

Rising star left back Jonas Hector being called into service by Joachim Löw was actually the first football-related ray of sunshine in Köln, where the mood of the early part of the week was tainted by the sour home loss to SC Freiburg on Sunday, which triggered raging debates over the ineptitude of the offense and the audible whistling by fans at the players as they struggled to move the ball into the final third of the pitch.

Then St. Jonas ascended unto the Nationalelf with his unassuming smile-smirk and all seemed much more Köln-like in Köln.

It’s absurd to have gotten this far into this segment without writing much about the actual match, which was a dandy. You may feel free to credit/blame the fact I’m an unapologetic (as Travis puts it) “fanboy” of the 1. FC Köln. It shall not bother me in the least.

It was certainly the most exciting match of the weekend, what with six goals scored in the first half and it being the only battle of the match day to feature goals from both participating sides.

But we definitely must speak of Pawel Olkowski, the man was signed in the winter to arrive in the summer as competition for captain Miso Brecko at right back.

Olkowski made earlier appearances in the midfield, but had seemed to supplant Brecko at right back after a series of strong performances. An injury to Marcel Risse, though, opened the door for playing both Brecko and Olkowski, but moving the Pole back into the midfield.

It paid off a little bit.

Hoffenheim was on the scoreboard just two minutes into the match, with Adam Szalai benefitting from a slight deflection of his shot and a fairly poor response by keeper Timo Horn. But Olkowski let the home lead stand for hardly a few minutes more, equalizing from the edge.

Olkoski then “tunneled” Hoffenheim captain Andreas Beck, again along the edge of the penalty area, leading to the Kölner being fouled as he was a out to dart past the beaten Beck for the ball. Matthias Lehmann curved the ensuing free kick around the wall and just inside the post where Oliver Baumann’s fists could do nothing but deflect the ball into the netting.

When Köln seemed to have blown the match open with a third unanswered goal, Olkowski was again in the middle of the action, serving as the pivot for Anthony Ujah on a quick give-and-go, which ended with the Nigerian darting through the Hoffenheim defense and around a sprawling Baumann to double the visitors’ lead.

Unfortunately for Köln, Hoffenheim answered fairly quickly. Rather, Roberto Firmino, who had stolen the ball to set-up the Szalai goal, answered twice in succession. When the Brazilian pulled the home side back to level just moments before the half, it was Olkowski’s poor marking that allowed the newly minted member of Brazil’s Selecao to head home the 3:3.

The second half was never going to live up to the roller coaster ride of the first, but the up-and-down action disappeared nearly completely, with Köln looking a lot more like the defense-first squad it had been thus far and Hoffenheim getting back to the more-responsible defending that had helped dispel the ghosts of last year’s porous defense and put Hoffenheim among early favorites for a European spot.

Then, more Olkowski . . .

Brecko hit his successor with a throw-in, which Olkowski managed to turn into a laser shot that got past Baumann and provided the game-deciding moment in the match’s 83rd moment, leaving Hoffenheim coach Markus Gisdol to rue the side’s second consecutive loss, their first at home in eight months,

Borusse! Borusse!

Do we need to rehash the set-up?

Mönchengladbach had not lost any of its first 17 matches, including a recent scoreless draw with FC Buy’em. Dortmund, despite running rampant in Europe, had lost seven of its first ten and, thanks to Werder Bremen’s Saturday night victory, entered the match day finale in last place.

I didn’t want to really repeat what I expect most everyone already knew, but even my wife, who suffers my Bundesliga updates like a champion, was a bit surprised to hear that the BVB had landed in last place.

So . . . 22-1 was the shots tally. 7-o was the final count on corners. Yet, it was a one-goal affair somehow, and that came off the foot of Christoph Kramer.

But, as even my wife knows, this does not mean it was a win for Mönchengladbach. The long-distance chip from the World Champion was over the head of Yann Sommer and into his own net.

It was a bit like how the Empire in Star Wars was undone by a design flaw in the construction of the Death Star. Sure, you’re under attack by a scrappy bunch in need of a result, but you’ve been through such battles before and, hence, seemed like you’d weather yet another. But then some young upstart lobs one through your ventilation shaft and KABOOM! Bye bye, Death Star/17-match unbeaten run/seven-match winless streak.

Of course, this comparison would make more sense if Skywalker actually played for the Empire . . . which was being run by his father, who ultimately failed to take his son out during the battle. Or, if Kramer was on loan from Dortmund.

Actually, it probably doesn’t make sense at all, but that’s what occurred to me, which means I’ve inflicted it upon you, unless you wisely ignore all my words and just watch the videos.

Whatever the case, Dortmund is not about to apologize for getting the points that way, especially considering h0w lopsided the efforts were. Snag the points and run into the international break, while not answering questions about Marco Reus’ future plans.

Also, try not to get hurt before match day 12 , if you could.

Wait . . . what? Reus is already hurt again? Oh, Borusse!

The Walking Dead

The image of Sami Hyypiä and Jens Keller sitting in a bar somewhere hoisting a beer to salute the recent struggles of their successors at their former clubs is irresistible. If I were a Photoshop ace, I’d definitely even make one.

For now, let’s allow the brain to do what it’s meant to do when reading and envision it for us.

Bayer Leverkusen was stonewalled by FSV Mainz’s Loris Karius, who helped the visitors survive being outshot by the Werkself 15-2 and escape Leverkusen with a point from the scoreless draw. Roger Schmidt’s is well-positioned to progress in Champions League after a mid-week victory in Russia over Zenit, but has been lingering in the Europa League range of the Bundesliga table for the last month with just one win from their last six league matches. Granted, they’ve lost just once in that stretch, but under Hyypiä last season, Bayer had won eight of their first eleven and were hanging tightly near the top with Bayern and Dortmund by this point.

Things had looked so much more promising for this year’s Werkself after getting out of the gate with victories in their first two matches, including the season-opening 0:2 at Dortmund, with Karim Bellarabi’s fastest-ever Bundesliga goal making the club the talk of the league for a while. But since taking an 0:3 lead into the locker room at halftime in Stuttgart, Schmidt’s crew has managed just one goal, blowing the three-goal lead to VfB and settling for a draw, becoming the first team to lose in Hamburg to the HSV this season by getting blanked there, and now the scoreless draw at home to an FSV Mainz club that had been sent reeling by consecutive losses.

The leading zombie here has to be Stefan Kießling, who is entirely too tall to have disappeared the way he has. The decidedly not-a-national-team-player has not scored in over 800 Bundesliga minutes, which is his personal longest-drought. Kieß is annually a contender for the canon trophy for the league’s top scorer, so his absence from the scoresheet naturally would indicate issues.

The one goal Bayer has managed the last 3.5 matches? Well, that came at the expense of their companion zombie size: Schalke 04.

The Roberto DiMatteo era is off to a very rocky start, meaning the words Jens and Keller will continue to be uttered in royal-blue circles until something improves. Last week’s dissatisfying 1:0 over Augsburg seemed to foretell Saturday’s 2:0 loss at the hands of suddenly hot SC Freiburg. Schalke was badly outplayed and easily could have lost by much more were it not for keeper Ralf Fährman and his goalposts and crossbar.

Freiburg looked much more the dangerous side than Schalke from start to finish, but, unlike Augsburg the week prior, were able to make those appearances count. First, you had Christian Günther stealing the ball off an entirely too-casual Sidney Sam near midfield and then sprinting toward the Schalke goal to be the recipient of a deflected pass he tucked away for the 1:0.

Günther is a left back, by the way. That he felt safe enough to encroach Sam on Schalke’s half of the pitch while Sam was in possession of the ball might tell you something about what Freiburg coach Christian Streich thought of DiMatteo’s tactics to date. After that, it was a lot of close chances for the home side, but the lead stayed at the one goal, until Dennis Aogo inexplicably headed the ball straight into the air above him in front of his own goal, seemingly so he could then head it to Jonathan Schmid a few feet away, who was happy to convert the service into a doubling of the lead.

Say what you want about Keller’s teams; they never looked as lifeless as this gang has the last few weeks.

“We need time,” said DiMatteo after the match.

Okay . . . well I’d have said “a fire under our asses,” but “time” it is. Here’s the international break. Get your act together.

Classic Zombies

Bayer and Schalke have their problems, but they are relative.

Hamburger SV and VfB Stuttgart are clearly in worse situations, but this would not qualify as news, so we’ll just say that both of them lost again over the weekend and find themselves, appropriately, in the bottom two spots in the table.

Okay, so the HSV ran into the hottest club in the league in Wolfsburg, so it’s not really a big upset that they were chewed up and spit back out in a 2:0 win for the home side, the sixth-consecutive league victory for the VfL.

But you don’t get partial credit for losing to an in-form side. Besides, the two victories the HSV have cashed have come over Champions League sides, beating both Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04. We know those clubs have battled demons, but that’s still fairly remarkable, especially as they’ve still scored just four goals all season.

Stuttgart have lost their last two matches by a combined six goals to none, which is a pretty crap way to follow-up on the come-from-behind 4:5 win over Eintracht Frankfurt. They’ve been outscored even by pitiful Hamburg the last two weeks. Sure, anyone can get blanked by VfL Wolfsburg right now, but losing 2:0 at Werder Bremen? The worst defense in the league?

Wait. Check that. The formerly worst. The new worst defense? Yep. Armin Veh’s VfB Stuttgart.

A match that only a Bayern fan/apologist could love

I may not have Thomas Schaaf’s quote entirely perfect, but the spirit is there.

“When you lose to this opponent, you want to leave the pitch at least being able to say, ‘we tried some things,’ and we did that.”

This is the extent to which the talent gap between FC Bayern and the rest of the league diminishes league fixtures with the “record champions.” You know you’re going to lose, and maybe you’ll be dominated in embarrassing fashion, much like Eintracht Frankfurt was Saturday in the 0:4 thumping that extended Frankfurt’s losing streak to four, but at least make sure you can say you tried to do something.

Meanwhile, Bayern players were giggling among themselves like schoolkids at the mall who’d cut class to hang out at the food court and recount some youtube videos or whatever it is that kids do when they cut class these days.

But as dominant as the performance was for Bayern, it was not enough to prevent Pep Guardiola from providing the eye-rolling moment of the weekend. When the Bayern boss was asked whether the match was closer to the perfection he strives to achieve with his club, he dismissively answered in the negative before condescendingly asking, “Did you see the first half?”

Yeah, Alex Meier had a free kick that had to be saved by Neuer, which might have been the biggest moment for the home side all day. That does leave a black mark, I suppose.

Granted, the idea of pursuing a “perfect performance” in a football match is absurd, which sort of makes the question absurd, except that Pep does seem to think it’s a goal worth chasing. I’d normally just dismiss it as trumped-up motivational-fodder, but seeing the way the coach was clearly shocked at the idea anyone would think his team has approached perfection leaves me wondering just how far he’s willing to pursue this one.

If I thought that Pep would ever witness a perfect performance by his club and then immediately retire satisfied, I’d encourage someone to just roll over for 90 minutes and let Xabi Alonso and Juan Bernat pass the ball between themselves a few hundred times before passing forward to teammates who eventually put the ball on the feet of Thomas Müller (who had a hat trick, if you’d not heard a billion times already, including one scored off his knee which is “oh, just so Thomas Müller of him, ha ha ha,” in cas you’d not yet heard a billion times) who will then dribble the ball into the net backwards off his butt (I don’t know the physics of this, but let’s just have it, shall we?).

Then Pep goes away and Bayern rehires Jupp Heyckes and continues to dominate is a slightly less obnoxious fashion.

The idea that this would seem like some form of victory for the rest of us has me feeling a bit Thomas Schaaf-like right now . . .

I’ll make it up to myself by simply enjoying the magic and mystery of Manuel Neuer. I mean . . . will you ever see a more-enjoyable one-touch reception-and-pass from a keeper? The man is legend.

The Jinx

I acknowledge just how “real” SC Paderborn’s solid start to the season had been, and then repay me my going out and getting man-handled by FC Augsburg, falling decisively 3:0 to up-and-down FC Augsburg.

Closer scrutiny of both sides’ results, this morning, revealed to me that Augsburg had won three consecutive home matches and that Paderborn had just one point from their prior four road matches, getting blanked in three of them.

In fairness, those shutout losses came at Bayern, Mönchengladbach, and Hoffenheim, but still . . . stronger at home than on the road.

Noted.

I still think either of these two sides could find themselves in the relegation fight, except that I also think they are both led by solid coaches. Markus Weinzierl has already once shown he can navigate out of even the dodgiest situation, while all Andre Breitenreiter does with his club is exceed expectations.

The fun story from this match is how Tobias Werner, in his 93rd Bundesliga match, got his first-ever Bundesliga brace at the expense of one of his best friends, Paderborn keeper Lukas Kruse. The wives and children of the two sat together in the tribune to witness the event.

Werner’s final thoughts on the matter?

“Sorry Lukki.”

I’m guessing he’s not THAT sorry.

What the Hannover?!

Hanover is fourth.

Yep. THAT Hannover. THAT fourth.

The red shirts put on black shirts and went to Berlin Friday night, two days before the celebration of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and snagged yet another unlikely victory thanks to goals by the continually improving Jimmy Briand and the on-fire Hiroshi Kiyotake.

Hertha didn’t look all that inspired even before team captain Fabian Lustenberger had to be substituted due to injry about ten minutes after the half. It wasn’t the most-thrilling match of all time, but Hannover made the most of having the lions’s share of possession and being the only club to put shots actually on target.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some entertainment value. Even a relative novice at the FIFA series of football video games was able to recognize where Briand stole his goal celebration.

 

 

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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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