Match Preview: 1. FC Köln – Hannover 96

1. FC Köln and Hannover 96 head into match day 22 as the top two clubs of the bottom half of the table, but with just four points separating tenth place from 17th, Saturday’s late match could start with both looking up from much nearer the relegation zone than either would have hoped to see after fairy strong starts to the season.

Bundesliga Fanatic club bloggers Randall Hauk and Ansgar Löcke break down their respective clubs heading into the fixture.

Hinspiel

Randall: Hannover became the first team to score on the 1. FC Köln this season after the Billy Goats opened with four consecutive clean sheets. The hosts rode Joselu’s sixth-minute score to a 1:0 victory despite their guests carrying the bulk of play throughout the match.

Ansgar: A lightning-quick start brought a goal just as I entered the pub to watch the game. After the bright beginning, we calmed down, a little bit too much for my liking. I suppose it wouldn’t have been unlucky had we dropped a couple of points in the end, but we held on.

Current Form

Randall: Despite a heart-breaking loss to local rival Borussia Mönchengladbach on an injury-time goal <rant>coming through a free kick that should never have been given . . . on Karneval weekend</rant> Köln’s reputation of presenting a stubbornly well-organized defense while taking very few chances in attack lives. The Granit Xhaka game-winner on Saturday was the first (and obviously only) goal Köln has conceded in 2015.

The concern, though, is the form at home. The Billy Goats have just one victory at the friendly confines in Müngersdorf this season and have scored just four times in view of their raucous home crowd. They will almost certainly be looking to keep another clean sheet, but as Peter Stöger has said that his team needs more points from their direct competition in the table, especially at home, there is good chance the offense will offer a new wrinkle this weekend.

Ansgar: Form? What is that thing you talk about? After five points from the final three games before the winter break and a relatively optimistic look ahead, things have turned out quite differently in 2015. Following a 0-1 defeat in Gelsenkirchen, a lucky victory for the host, Hannover continued to squander a 1-0 lead against Mainz during the Englische Woche, then proved their worth as the “dumbest team in the Bundesliga” (thanks to @lostinnippes for that quote) by basically gifting HSV the easiest win of their season, and then Hannover threw away another game against Paderborn which left Hannover fans in a state between anger and speechlessness. So instead of having an eye towards the european spots, 96 rather squints towards the relegation zone with one-and-a-half eyes with only three goals and one point in 2015.

Projected Line-ups

Offense

Randall: Peter Stöger’s crew is o-for-February in the “goals scored” department. It’s easy enough to dismiss coming up empty at a Champions League contender in a derby match, as Köln did last weekend at Mönchengladbach, but failing to bulge the netting even once in consecutive home matches against Stuttgart and Paderborn has to be somewhat alarming. If you’re not producing against relegation competition in your own house, it’s hard to have much hope for upcoming road trips to Bayern and Dortmund, not to mention the coming cup tie down in the Black Forest against SC Freiburg, who is also on the list of lower-table sides to post a clean sheet in Köln this season.

Loads of attention has been focused on the non-presence of striker Anthony Ujah in the early going. The teams’ leading scorer had six goals in the Hinrunde, but hasn’t managed even half as many dangerous chances in four matches since the return from winter. Ujah’s ineffectiveness has led to his being substituted near the hour mark the last two matches and has many questioning whether he’s not about to be given some time to think from a seat while someone else gives it a shot up front.

Bård Finne and Yuya Osako have been given playing time of late, but while looking dangerous at times, neither necessarily showed enough to move to the front of the queue. Winter transfer Deyverson made his Dey-but at Mönchengladbach, but Köln was thoroughly on their back heels the entire afternoon, providing little opportunity to get a look at their new striker in action on the offensive third of the field.

Which leads to the crux of the problem: with the focus on defense and a lack of creative play from the midfield to lead into action on the other end, the strikers are all at a disadvantage from the start. Too many Köln possessions end with a wimper. Short of a striker getting the ball at midfield and dancing through the opposing defense, it’s hard to see where the pursuit of goals is going to emerge.

But, don’t forget that Stöger was an offensive-minded midfielder as a player and arrived to the Cathedral City with a reputation for being an offensive-minded coach via his high-flying championship FK Austria Wien side. His team has occasionally shown flashes against sides that struggle on the defensive end. Hannover could be said to be such a side . . . but then again, so could Paderborn and Stuttgart.

Ansgar: It’s been a mixed bag this season.

We’ve had games where one set-piece decided the game. In other fixtures we’ve scored plenty by using clever combinations. At the moment, we have only one striker who is really capable of starting a Bundesliga game, that being Joselu. Sadly, the start of the Rückrunde saw him take a major dip in form, and there is no real replacement to jump in.

Fans constantly ask for Artur Sobiech to play more often, perhaps as a second striker, but the Pole has failed to deliver consistently when trusted with regular playing time. Artur has scored twice this season, both goals having come against Hamburg.

In terms of offensive midfield, we currently play Hiroshi Kiyotake and Jimmy Briand on the wings and Lars Stindl as the number ten.

Given our form, I highly doubt that Stindl will be with us next season. Nobody would be surprised if he looked for a bigger club with a stronger case for European play. He’s the engine in this team and actually looks bothered at the moment.

BVB prospect Leo Bittencourt, who could be bought back by his former club this summer, also has hit a low since the winter break and therefore spends most his time on the bench, from which he can’t do much to improve on his one goal and two assists.

Returning hero Didier Ya Konan has yet play a role in the team set-up. He’s been training only individually and should, at some point, be able to attend team training.

Defense

Randall: It’s the bread and butter of Köln’s clutching onto mid-table status. The Arjen Robbens and Roger Schmidts of the world can sneer derisively at the tactics, but they cannot deny its relative effectiveness. Stöger has determined the best path to achieving the lone goal of the season (do not go back down!) is through organized defending, even if it’s to the detriment of attractive, goal-rich football

Did I mention yet that the only goal surrendered by Köln this year came in added time last weekend? And that it needed a questionable awarding of a free kick to arrange for it?

Stöger will like his chances of a clean sheet against Hannover, even though the red shirts were the first club to get a goal against Köln this season. Expect to see Dominic Maroh return to his starting spot in the middle of the defensive row and for the defensive midfield tandem of Matthias Lehmann and Kevin Vogt to feature heavily in yet another defense-first game plan.

Ansgar: Another case of a mixed bag. During the Hinrunde, we either kept a clean sheet or got rolled over (Bayern, Gladbach, Leverkusen, Wolfsburg).

The center back pairing of Marcelo and Schulz looks okay, though Schulz is suspended with his fifth booking. Salif Sané will drop back a position to replace Schulz. The central defense is not the quickest . . . which is a nice way of meaning they are very slow. What they are good at is aerial challenges. They get out nearly every cross that is put into the own box. Playing a high line is basically suicide, though, because once it fails there is no way they can return to position in time to avoid chances.

Our weak spots are the full back positions. Miiko Albornoz tries very hard on the left side and certainly leaves a better impression than Christian Pander, who I am pretty sure has rented a local hospital room as his secondary residence. But the Chilean has his limitations, which are occasionally exposed by opponents. I’m sure he’s eager to improve and think he has settled well since arriving in the summer, but he needs a challenger for the spot.

One player who got a challenger over the winter is Hiroki Sakai. After Hannover’s deal with Maribor for Petar Stojanovic surprisingly fell through, the club turned toward Joao Pereira, who cancelled the final few months of his contract with Valencia and signed a six month deal with Hannover, in a deal similar to last year’s acquisition of Frantisek Rajtoral the previous season. The 30-year-old Portuguese is likely just a stopgap solution, as the club continues to closely follow former Bayern prospect Vladimir Rankovic while on loan to and playing regularly for FC Erzgebirge Aue. If the club is satisfied with Rankovic’s development, he’ll again challenge Sakai’s position; if not, they’ll likely pursue another body for right back.

Goalkeeping

Randall: Some keepers might go most of four games without surrendering a goal largely due to a dearth of chances allowed through.

Timo Horn is no such keeper.

Köln’s U21 national has made several highlight-reel saves already this year and was probably his sides best player at ‘Gladbach. Both goals are going to be well-guarded Saturday.

Ansgar: A world champion! A true, legendary World Champion! Hannover’s first-ever World Champion!

Alright, that aside, Ron-Robert Zieler’s performance so far has been far from flawless. On a few occasions, he has looked shaky on the line, made a few iffy moves, and let in a few easy goals.

On the other hand, he pulled of a great amount of decent-to-amazing saves to keep the team from losing games.

Zieler’s spot between the sticks is 100% safe, though. Austria national keeper Robert Almer will seemingly remain on the bench for a while longer, as Zieler hasn’t missed a game in ages.

Coaching

Randall: When everything was running very smoothly in the 2. Bundesliga, you couldn’t help but notice how Stöger addressed absolutely everything with a stoic demeanor. You could almost say he came off as completely cold-blooded.

Even with everyone constantly reminding the media the goal for the season is fifteenth place, you now can see the occasional crack in the Stöger facade, particularly when the famously rabid Köln media wear him down with repeated questioning on a single topic.

But, despite his plea for everyone to drop the line of inquiry regarding an increase of goal-production, you do not see any cracks in Stöger’s resolve. You’d be hard-pressed to point to many goals Köln has conceded as examples of a shift in strategy away from the all-defense, all-the-time philosophy (the end of the Leverkusen match, excepted . . . though I’d argue some of that mess occurred in the heads of the players and not necessarily the coach . . .).

If you see Köln go on the attack early Saturday, don’t think for a second that it’s because Stöger is trying to hush the whining about the offense, rather that he has identified something he knows his team can exploit.

Call it stubbornness, but I’ll call it the precisely proper personality for a coach at 1. FC Köln, even if it drives some fans absolutely nuts. 

Ansgar: Tayfun Korkut, right now, splits the Hannover fan base.

One half really likes him and thinks he should be given more time to work on a new concept of playing football, involving the stringing-together of more passes and combining for goals, rather than simply lumping it forward, or just sitting back and wait for counterattacking opportunities as every other Bundesliga team does.

The other half accuses him of being too cautious and claims that playing with only one striker is being too defensive. Those fans also charge the stringing together a lot of passes as being “brotlose Kunst” (breadless art”), a German expression to describe something fancy that doesn’t deliver a result that can nourish the artist. Korkut is accused of preferring to celebrate dirty wins than watching the team in Schönheit sterben (“die in beauty”). Those comments were mostly used after the loss at Hamburg.

Nobody was saying that after the Paderborn game, though. We were truly dreadful that day and died very ugly that evening.

Intangibles

Randall: Football has taken a back seat in Köln this week, and it wasn’t even because of clean-up after Karneval.

Though, in a sense, it has been related to tidying after a bit of a mess.

A handful of hooligans apparently wanted to make sure 1. FC Köln would be forced to spend some of it’s financial resources on fines rather than personnel and, hence, made sure they could be the center of attention by lighting flares in the visitor section, causing a delayed start to the match as well as drawing Jörg Schmadtke to the block in order to appeal to reason when they started again at the start of the second half.

If the exaggerated cursing-out of the club’s sporting director wasn’t enough, a few dozen of those same fans, all disguised in painter uniforms, stormed onto the pitch after the final whistle, which led to some violent conflicts and injuries.

The end result has been the expulsion and stadium ban of a well-known fan group. It’s the single most-heated topic going among EffZeh fans right now, though the overwhelming majority seem to fully support everything the club has done in response.

The hope will be that Saturday’s on-pitch action will finally put football back into focus for discussion around the club . . . just the way it’s meant to be, despite the vanity of some “ultras.”

Prediction

Randall: Despite the lack of scoring . . . despite the lack of a second home victory . . . despite the distractions . . .

I think that with both a rough patch of schedule and seemingly the entire (except Stuttgart) bottom half of the table coming toward Köln will lift Stöger’s players, an added sense of urgency will inspire a breaking of both the home and goal drought.

The hope will be that the pressure to perform on both fronts won’t cause bad judgment and failure, though.

The result from the Hinspiel left a bit of a bad taste, too.

I can argue that Köln needs the result more than does Hannover. I can also argue that Köln is simply more in-form, because they’re collecting points through precisely their preferred tactic.

2:0 and a weekend-after-Karneval explosion of joy at Müngersdorf, whether the ultras bother to join or not.

Ansgar: This is the Bundesliga Topspiel, and what a corker of a game this will be, with both teams completely in-form and free-flowing to score loads of goals at will . . .

Ah jeez, who am I kidding? Mostly myself, as I’ll be in the stadium in Köln to experience this once-in-a-lifetime game in person.

And if I am really, really lucky, I will have forgotten the game as soon as possible with a little help from my friend, the Kölsch.

0-0 . . .  no goals . . . no scoring chances . . . what else could it be?

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