A commanding second half performance from Cologne saw them overcome a Hannover side who offered surprisingly little after going a goal behind.
This Friday night round 26 fight saw the teams placed fifth and fourth in the form table come up against one another. With Geromel still absent through injury, Frank Schaefer was forced to use Kevin Pezzoni as an emergency centre-back again. The inconvenience of having to do this was shown when the gangly midfielder was at fault for Dortmund’s only goal in last Friday night’s 1-0 win – failing to respond quickly or intelligently enough to the assisting pass. Hannover, fresh from last weekend’s heroic win against Bayern Munich, were again without top scorer Didier Ya Konan, as well as talismanic midfielder Sérgio Pinto. They knew a win would temporarily lift them above Leverkusen into second spot, and eight points clear of Bayern – with international fixtures allocated to the last weekend in March, three points would even have ensured they remained above the holding champions going into the penultimate month of the season. Cologne, still just four points above the relegation places coming into this game, knew a win would lift them above Schalke into tenth spot: and, more crucially, a win would give them some much-needed breathing space from those sides in the relegation zone.
Although Hannover partially took the early initiative (spreading the ball about with first-time passes), both teams were lined up so as to err on the side of caution, with the defences not coming far up the field. When the hosts finally forced the visitors into losing the ball by swallowing a counter-attack after leaving scores of bodies near Michael Rensing, they played a short restart and passed their way – unchallenged – up to the halfway line. Via Lukas Podolski, Cologne pressed a bit higher without the ball than Hannover did, but not by much – this was a game of tactical chicken between Mirko Slomka and Schaefer, each waiting for the other to show their hand. Although both were ultimately looking to hit their opposite number’s team on the break, there was a noticeable contrast in styles – Cologne, direct but ponderous; Hannover, triangular passing moves done with zest and urgency. But frustrated by the away side’s command and slick use of the ball, the hosts soon began to press higher, and inject a greater deal of bite into the tackle.
But while Cologne sought to do this and simultaneously push their attacking midfielders nearer to the forwards, they forgot to move their defenders up the pitch in line with this tactical ploy. Thus, there was soon plenty of space for Hannover to make runs or slip passes into. Moments after Podolski blazed a 40-yard free-kick over the bar, Konstantin Rausch, a thorn in Anatoliy Tymoshchuk’s side last weekend, carried the ball down the chalk, jinxed inside, and forced a superb save from Rensing, last weekend’s star performer. Going close became infectious – three minutes after the Rausch chance, Christian Eichner easily peeled free at the near post to casually volley a corner goalwards in the 15th minute. Luckily for the momentarily asleep Hannover defence, Ron-Robert Zieler had his wits about him. Three minutes after that, Mohammed Abdellaoue’s left-footed curler forced another great save from Rensing – the Norwegian set up by Steve Cherundolo and Carlitos, who were linking up well together down the right in both attack and defence. On top of these attempts at goal, Hannover also won a series of corners. They looked impressive: seamlessly switching from a narrow 4-4-2 in the defensive phase of play to a width-laden, free-flowing, full-back rampaging system in the attacking phase. Against a home side set up to use long balls (thereby making infrequent use of the channels, and having no real full-back overlaps or elements of surprise), it was really quite simple for the visitors.
But the tables were turned just after the half-hour mark when Cologne played their neatest bit of on-the-floor football in the final-third. They temporarily pulled the Hannover defence apart and got three bodies in behind and amongst them. Only a foul in the build-up prevented the move from going further. Seconds later, Hannover went direct – a ball behind the right-back for Carlitos to chase, and cue a cute pull-back, and brilliant volley from the oncoming Jan Schlaudraff which unfortunately went wide.
Alas, such is football life, Hannover were made to pay for their profligacy in the 35th minute. When Podolski launched a head-down dart through the D, the in-his-dust Karim Haggui hauled him down – the referee showed the Hannover man a yellow card, and gave the home side a free kick just to the left of the D. It was taken by Petit, who arrowed it – with a bounce – into the right-hand corner for 1-0. Should Zieler have positioned his wall more securely? Probably.
Yet more direct football almost handed Cologne a two-goal advantage in the 38th minute. They opted for their favoured method of attack (a long ball for Milivoje Novakovič to flick on for two bobbing attackers ahead of him), and Christian Clemens, cutting in from the right flank after switching with Sławomir Peszko , could only fire wide when well placed. Bolstered by an injection of urgency, Cologne increasingly began to utilise the flanks, and subsequently, the away side’s wingers and full-backs were tied in knots. But as Hannover tried to put a cork in this fresh burst of high-octane tempo, they allowed the hosts to close the half out with ease. Sideways passing amongst the defenders five metres short of the halfway line against minimal pressing = a total stalemate, a clock winding down, and a retreat to the changing rooms a goal down.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, say some. And at the start of the second half, Cologne coach Schaefer seemed to be a believer in this way of thinking, as his side continued to try dropping bombs into the final-third. Hannover stuck to their same effective way of dealing with this threat – a narrow defence of three, with Haggui timing his sprints out to beat Novakovič in the air and clear the immediate danger. Moments after some minor handbags between Podolski and Christian Schulz, Slomka made a change that ensured the Germany international’s wasn’t the biggest ego on the pitch. The injured Zieler jogged off, replaced in the Hannover goal by Florian Fromlowitz. The cocky ‘keeper was soon called into action, making two great reflex saves from a Podolski cross shinned towards goal by Emmanuel Pogatetz.
Aided by Hannover struggling to find a pass through the disciplined own-half walls (which saw the away side’s midfielders shuttle back in search of the ball), and committing too many bodies forward into the home side’s half when they did, Cologne soon found themselves able to regularly carry and hold the ball in the opponent’s half without the need to punt it.
Thus, when Petit burst through the halfway line in the 59th minute, the narrow Hannover rearguard back-pedalled in petrified tandem. Podolski hung on the left side of the box, poised to enter it, and when fed by the former Benfica star, had time and space to round Fromlowitz and hand his side a deserved 2-0 lead.
Post-goal, the visitors again tried to step it up, but Cologne, as we’d now come to expect, responded accordingly. With both away side centre-midfielders going up to the on-halfway centre-backs to collect the ball and run it into the opposition’s half before picking out a pass, the hosts felt confident enough to push their back four upfield and away from Rensing’s box; keeping a compact 4-4-2, compressing the space Hannover’s foremost attacking four players wanting the ball had to work in, and increasing the likelihood of a turnover in possession and a counter-attack for one of the wingers or Podolski to chase (the channels being freshened up by Adil Chihi coming on to the right-hand side, looking to cut inside on his left foot nearer to the D – thereby draining more energy from the already backtracking Hannover players).
It was therefore little surprise when Novakovič added a third goal in the 79th minute. Poor positional play and a paucity of awareness from Hannover, coupled with some neat and tidy exchanges by Podolski and Peszko, made it too easy for the home side to work the ball from the corner flag and into one side of the box so as to pass it diagonally across to the other side for a tap-in. The Slovenian international striker got his second ten minutes later – Rausch and Schulz doing little to stop Chihi placing a cross into the box, where Novakovič easily climbed above Haggui to head home, wrong-footing the beleaguered Fromlowitz in the process. After that exhilarating win against Bayern last weekend, it really was a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show for Hannover here.