Cologne and Nuremberg looked all but certain to have played out an entertaining and fiery 0-0 draw until Slovenia international Milivoje Novakovič scored an injury-time winner for the hosts at the RheinEnergieStadion.
For the neutral football fan, a Bundesliga battle between the sides in 12th and sixth place respectively may not have forced all other afternoon plans to be cancelled, but there was a fair bit riding on this game, with the hosts knowing that if they lost here and Wolfsburg beat Eintracht Frankfurt in the day’s other game, they would be just two points above the drop zone. Frank Schaefer has turned Cologne’s fortunes around since replacing Zvonimir Soldo, but a 6-2 hammering at the hands of Hamburg in the last round emphasised that this is the same team which the Croatian struggled to push up the table. At least Schaefer had few injuries or suspensions to contend with when it came to selecting his side, although 12 members of the Cologne squad were returning from international duty. By way of comparison, Nuremberg came into this game in fantastic form, and knew they could move into the Europa League spots with a win. They had seen ten of their players called up for international duty in the week, but one of those was Timothy Chandler, suspended for this game anyway, and therefore joining Albert Bunjaku, Javier Pinola, Mike Frantz and Julian Schieber on the sidelines. Nevertheless, Dieter Hecking’s side had no problem beating Die Geißböcke earlier on in the season, triumphing 3-1 at the easyCredit-Stadion.
Despite some early sideways passing post-kick-off by the visitors, Cologne didn’t let up for a good few minutes as soon as they got on the ball. They attacked Nuremberg at pace, looking to get the wide midfielders, full-backs and Lukas Podolski running at the defence, and committing numbers in the box for the set-pieces their attacks reaped. However, Nuremberg man-marked the latter very well, and young Marvin Plattenhardt, making only his third ever start, did a sterling job early on bolting the forays down his flank. Even when Hecking’s side managed to get on the ball, there was no attempt to take the sting out of the game – it was a fast, furious, physical and thrilling opening ten minutes.
Initially, Nuremberg liked the direct route, be it feeding one of their chalk-standing wingers with a long-diagonal, or scooping a ball over the top for Christian Eigler to sprint on to. But the hosts are a disciplined unit out of possession, holding three tight, compact and responsive banks. Even when Mišo Brečko struggled to cope with the physicality of Jens Hegeler, Martin Lanig was there to help him mop up. As the away side’s attacks increased in frequency, aided by the fact they had a one man, Timmy Simons-flavoured advantage in midfield thanks to the Nuremberg defenders’ cleverly luring two pressing forwards onto them, it was the home side who now had to play direct football, looking to release a striker with a hasty ball over the top. But when Podolski looked to be the favourite to get on the end of such a pass in the 11th minute, Philipp Wollscheid was across in a flash, continuing the fine start to the game made by both sets of defences.
The increasing class, confidence and speedy distribution of the floor-based football by the away side meant that they could confidently push their full-backs forward, knowing that Cologne were stretched and standing their midfield and defence banks deeper. Even when a pass did go astray, they pressed quickly and with eyes for covering the angles and winning the ball only, aided by the fact that the red-shirted player on the ball was having to wait for his colleagues to run in front of him.
Therefore, huge credit must go to Schaefer for radically altering things as the 20-minute mark came and went. From restarts, he got his centre-backs to calm things down with some aimless sideways passing. Sensing that he didn’t have the players or numbers to win the battle in the centre of the pitch, he began to target the Plattenhardt/Hegeler side again. The way he went about this was especially clever, as Sławomir Peszko was shackled. Thus, Brečko, a full-back not known for his forays forward, began to constantly receive the ball on the overlap, catching the surprised Nuremberg players cold. Podolski should have buried one of the Slovenian international’s crosses into the box, but could only head over when well placed. Nevertheless, the chance and the full-back’s increasing, albeit brief, influence on proceedings injected a shot of caution into the visitors’ play.
As the half-hour mark approached, the game was fascinatingly poised: as open and fast as ever, and very much end to end. This is because the defences were deep, and the attackers pressing high – the result of a liaison between cautious and conviction mentalities. Lanig, supposedly there to help protect the defence, was found sprinting forward on several occasions, looking to unleash a 40-yard screamer. His team-mate, hard-working Novakovič, revelled in the space; holding up well, flicking on, and closing down the man on the ball. Hecking’s side were just as effective in attack, and played with a great deal of fluidity – epitomised by Eigler peeling to the right flank to whip in a good cross for the ghosting run of İlkay Gündoğan (Michael Rensing, as he has been throughout 2011, was there to protect the goal). It was Schaefer yet again who looked to bolt the gate first, his side looking particularly vulnerable from the sharp Nuremberg counter-attacks. However, the away side’s best chance came shortly after Schaefer’s switch in the 38th minute when the home side’s clearing of a corner accidentally bounced back into their own box. Luckily for them, Hegeler scuffed the shot.
As Cologne continued to kill a bit of the game’s tempo and reduce the space (it partially worked, with the option to ghost onto one of Juri Judt’s inviting crosses no longer so readily available), the last six minutes of the half were fiery and foul-ridden. Nuremberg sought to use the increasingly aggressive nature to their advantage in first half stoppage time, making little triangles around the halfway line, drawing Cologne’s attackers and midfielders onto them, and therefore widening the corridor between the halfway-hovering midfield and deep defence. Hegeler made a diagonal dart from the left wing to the right side of the pitch, collected the ball, looked up, but miscued his right-footed shot – giving the referee the perfect opportunity to take the sides off the pitch for a break.
There were no changes for the start of the second half, bar the tempo dropping slightly. The physical and aggressive edge was still present though, and we saw a few more ugly fouls in the opening few minutes. Thankfully, a fleeting moment of class from Gündoğan, involving a shoulder drop which unearthed a pocket of space for a shot, showed everyone that this game was still a football one. Rensing hit that point home seconds later, quickly distributing the ball for Novakovič, who got a shot off from a tight angle (Raphael Schäfer held it at the near post). With Mehmet Ekici and Hegeler having swapped sides, we began to see Christian Clemens utilise the space given to him because of Judt and Hegeler’s mainly attacking tendencies. Where his final ball was lacking, the passing of Plattenhardt and Ekici wasn’t so shoddy. Eigler was constantly on the move, looking to collect a pass on the flank, and forming a nice link with the left-sided duo. But Geromel tracked his every move, as Cologne put in a solid defensive shift during the opening ten minutes of the second half.
However, despite Mato Jajalo standing nearer the strikers, they struggled to launch attacks during the opening stages of the second half. On their long goal kicks, for instance, Hecking set his side out in a narrow 4-2-3-1 – stifling the space for flick-ons, and ensuring that the numbers were there to win the loose ball. Therefore, Cologne had to hit the flanks again, and as their releasing passes hastened, the likes of Ekici and Judt resorted to fouls to stop their sides banks from being stretched. As the hour mark came and went, the game was once again bitty and scrappy, and short on chances. Despite the increased mobility and desire to get on the ball and use it from Gündoğan, Nuremberg now looked as though they were tiring – Schaefer’s aim of stretching them having the desired effect. This allowed Lanig to become more of a driving force, carrying into the increased space, and Jajolo too also saw more of the ball. But despite a brief improvement at the start of the second half, Clemens had drifted out of the game again, and was replaced by Adil Chihi in the 67th minute.
Hecking looked as though he was happy with a point, judging by the way his side began to play from the 70th minute. The centre-backs passed seemingly solely to one another, sideways, of course. Even when Yousef Mohamad sold Rensing short with a terrible backpass (he had lost his head and never retrieved it after the game became niggly at the end of the first half), no one was there to make the home side pay. Cologne were in the ascendancy, both on and off the ball. They dropped back at pace whenever the visitors sought to take sting out of the game, encouraging them to come on, and leaping into a challenge in their own half (usually Lanig). With Podolski veering towards the left flank more, Cologne effectively had four attacking midfielders to launch on the counter-attack when they won the ball, and looked dangerous every time they went forward. But it wasn’t until the 92nd minute that they got their reward, Novakovič pouncing to make it seven straight wins at home.