Game Preview: 1. FC Köln at Schalke 04

1. FC Köln at FC Schalke 04
Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen
Sunday, October 4, 2015
9:30 a.m. EST

The post-derby English week was one of general disappointment for fans, despite some minor victories to be taken at least from the draw last Friday with Ingolstadt.

Everyone will feel a lot better with a point or three brought back to Köln from Gelsenkirchen Sunday, as not only are the royal blues of Schalke generally disliked on Planet Effzeh, but because Andre Breitenreiter’s side has shown early signs that last season’s drop for Schalke from perennial top-four finisher into the Europa League was but an anomaly.

The Billy Goats will face a much tougher task awaiting them at the Veltins Arena than what was presented late last season when the effzeh took all three points in an 0:2 win.

Here’s a look at how the two stack-up:

Goalkeeper

Almost every week, this space is going to be “Easy call: Timo!” or “I hate to say anyone is quite on Timo’s level, but this is one of those rare times . . .”

Ralf Fährmann has earned his Bundesliga stripes since stepping in for an injured (and not completely effective) Timo Hildebrand in November of 2013. It wasn’t long thereafter that Lars Unnerstall realized he’d need to seek playing time elsewhere, as Fährmann quickly build a reputation for making multiple big saves.

Not quite two years later, the 27-year-old may not be a name for Joachim Löw and the German national team, but Fährmann is certainly a solid veteran presence between the posts for one of the Bundesliga’s top clubs and has shown enough to get some support for a nomination to the Nationalelf.

As we’ve noted before, Timo Horn is a national-team level performer, at least in the youth ranks, It seems certain that he will at least be in the mix for the A-squad down the road, while he’s also considered a quality transfer target for Schalke’s peers. In fact, Revierderby rival Borussia Dortmund was thought to once be considering a purchase of Horn to replace Roman Weidenfeller before SC Freiburg’s Roman Bürki became available due his status as a clear first-division player while his club was headed to the second.

I am certain nobody would trade Horn for Fährmann, but that might have more to do with potential and age than currently observed ability. Fährmann, at the very least, benefits from being forced into action much more frequently than is Horn.

For 90 minutes, I’d always take my chances with Horn against anyone, while I’m certain Schalke fans would say the same of their guy, at least against Köln.

Advantage: Push

Defense

I’m not going to say that the numbers all rest on the back four of each squad, but noting that Schalke is on a run of three consecutive shut-out victories while Köln has just one clean sheet all season should be enough to raise some concerns here.

If you can say that a back four that helped post a shutout has a weak link, Roman Neustädter was that for Schalke last weekend against a Hamburger SV side that provided little test or threat for anyone playing defense for the royal blues (or awkwardly ‘gladbach-esque black-and-greens, as their third jerseys were in play in Hamburg). If Neustädter plays at all Sunday, it’s likely to be in his normal midfield area, as Breitenreiter can now call on world champion Benedikt Höwedes, now ready for full service after making his way back gradually from injury.

Otherwise, Denis Aogo, Joel Matip, and Junior Caicara do not give much away. Between the back row and keeper, Schalke have a solid foundation out of which to play.

Those last three teams that have failed to score on Schalke? Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Hamburg.

Know why I point this out? Yep. All three scored goals against Köln this season. Granted, Stuttgart’s was from the spot, but the HSV that looked punchless at home last week against Schalke managed a goal in Köln.

And let’s try to never again mention what happened in Frankfurt, can we?

We’ve seen some good stuff from Hector, Heintz, and Sørensen, but we’ve also seen each of them falter from time to time. Then there’s right back, where Pawel Olkowski has been so ineffective, that Peter Stöger used midfielder Marcel Risse back there out of choice, rather than being forced by injury. Risse missed time this week from injury, and Stöger has said he will not hesitate to use Olkowski in the future.

We need to see more of what we saw from last year’s chain-of-four than what we have so far this season. It would be lovely to see it Sunday.

For now . . .

Strong Advantage: Schalke

Midfield

Has our defense been semi-unreliable? Then let’s talk about the midfield!

Is anyone thoroughly happy with Matthias Lehmann and Kevin Vogt defensively as a double-pivot, or even in the middle when playing a bit more a traditional-looking (if somewhat-flexible) 4-4-2?

I haven’t been.

Meanwhile, I look at what Johannes Geis and Leon Goretzka have been able to offer from that area, with the addition of Geis’ terrific ability from set pieces and Goretzka’s insanely nice passing touch in attack . . . jealousy is an ugly thing.

The rest of the midfield has been a rotating scene that has offered more disappointment than hope so far. Leonardo Bittencourt is generally solid on the left side and plays a great two-way game, if an increase in his offensive contributions would be incredibly welcome. Strikers Yuya Osako and Simon Zoller have had mixed results in their time playing in the midfield, though largely not too impressive. Marcel Risse had played just well enough that his coach didn’t mind losing his midfield presence to help the defense.

Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting . . . Max Meyer . . . LEROY SANE?!!!!

EMCM maybe has yet to be the power that he’s shown in the past, and Meyer seems to fall just short of making amazing things happen on a regular basis, but Sane unleashed frankly terrifies me. If the kid starts, as it appears he might with Marco Höger getting injured last weekend . . . he’ll be a handful. As a bonus motivation, Sane has scored in three consecutive appearances. If he plays again and scores, he’ll have achieved by the age of 19 something his father, former Bundesliga star Souleyman, never managed in his career.

Strong Advantage: Schalke

Attack

Modeste, aside from Horn, is the most-consistent source of strength for the effzeh. He makes a nuisance of himself amid defenders of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, keeping opposition on alert for the threat he represents just by asserting his presence, even when the balls aren’t coming in as frequently nor as precisely as he might require.

Essentially, a ball headed toward Modeste in the offensive third feels threatening more often than what we got used to from our offense last season. More creativity in delivering the ball to the big fella would greatly increase his value, of course, as would some support from a secondary striker/offensive threat or even someone able to find him with free kicks, but Modeste is having a better start to the season than what I believe anyone expected.

In Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Franco DiSanto, Breitenreiter has three very attractive options available in attack. Huntelaar, a.k.a. “the Hunter,” had his double-digit goals-scored streak snapped at three with last season’s nine-goal output, but he’s a well-regarded veteran who once posted 48 goals between all competitions.

DiSanto got his first double-digit total in his breakout last season with Werder Bremen, which led to him being plucked away from green-and-whites late in the summer. While he has yet to find the net for Schalke in Bundesliga competition, he just posted a hat trick in Europa League action a few days ago, so there’s a chance he’s starting to find his comfort level in his new surroundings.

I don’t think either team knows for certain what they can expect from their strikers over the course of the season, but right now it’s Modeste who has been the more-reliable of all of them. Huntelaar definitely has the resume, and DiSanto was definitely the bigger catch, hype-wise, in the summer market, but Modeste will enter Sunday’s match at the most-dangerous goal-threat.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Coach

For me, Andre Breitenreiter will always be the guy steering SC Paderborn into second place the same season in which we won the 2. Bundesliga and got promoted, if only because his was the first team the effzeh faced coming out of the winter break and ended up winning at Müngersdorfer Stadium. It was the only loss Köln would take between the restart of the season and the clinching of the league title, but was also a match in which you couldn’t stop looking at the individual players and screaming at the screen, “HOW ARE THESE GUYS BEATING US?!”

Of course, loads of clubs felt that sting in the 2013-14 season when Paderborn easily and surprisingly were the vice-champion. Much credit, and deservedly so, was foisted upon Breitenreiter.

Additionally, Schalke seems to be adjusting much better to Julian Draxler departing for Wolfsburg than Wolfsburg has from losing Kevin DeBruyne. That can be credited to the coaching, too.

Without dismissing his capacities to be flexible, I’ll posit that there is a big difference in leading a group of underdogs to success and helping a roster full of high-paid players live up to the high expectations in a place like Gelsenkirchen. So far, so good for Breitenreiter, but we’re not that far along.

And, again, it was Stöger who finished above Breitenreiter the last two seasons.

Maybe someday we will see what Stöger does with a more-expensive collection of players, but one of his strengths has been keeping eleven guys working as a unit, which is why this team managed a mid-table finish last year, just a handful of points behind Schalke by season’s end, and also why the effzeh will at least make things difficult for Schalke on Sunday.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Form

We’ve covered the details of this one a little bit in other areas, so we can keep it somewhat brief here.

I think some of the agonizing over the form of the effzeh the last two times out is a bit overdone. Sure, some issues have been exposed, but the unrest comes more from instantly over-inflated expectations rather than realistic notions of what the team actually is. Sure, there was reason to hope for more than one point from at Berlin and home against Ingolstadt, but neither match was a gimme.

Schalke is getting results, even if their play isn’t necessarily overwhelming. They are certainly solid and getting results, which is plenty for this juncture of the season.

Advantage: Schalke

Health

The biggest bit of injury news is that Milos Jojic is not travelling with the team due to a nagging issue with “inflamation of the ankle.” Dusan Svento will also stay home Sunday with the flu.

Mergim Mavraj is getting closer to his first availability of the season, but is not yet back to full health.

In more-positive news, Kevin Vogt is making the trip with the team, equipped with a mask to protect his nose, which was broken in a collision in Berlin.

Schalke has a handful of injuries, though also has the depth to cover them.

As previously mentioned, Marco Höger is the latest Schalke loss to injury. He’ll join defenders Atstuto Uchida and Matija Nastasic on the “not available” list for Sunday.

I could mention Kevin-Prince Boateng just for a laugh, but I don’t know how much he’s actually injured. Either way, he’s seemingly not playing for Schalke ever again.

Slight Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Intangibles

Schalke is feeling good about themselves for a decent run of results and seemingly having recovered from whatever plagued them last season and threatened to keep them out of European competition entirely.

The home side enjoys a nice stadium that’s almost always full of boisterous fans, which should help the Royal Blues’ motivation in seeking revenge for the 0:2 loss they were handed by the effzeh the last time the two met at the Veltins.

Other than Köln knowing they beat Schalke last time and maybe are in need of a result to return to the feel-good times that followed the derby just two weeks ago, but now seems like an eternity ago.

And as road trips go, this is not a long one.

Strong Advantage: Schalke

Prediction

As much as I believe (or want to believe) that we can expect a tight contest that might tilt a point or three our way with a few good turns of fortune, the last two road trips have me concerned that the task may be a bit too much at this time. It’d be a good time to turn around the away form, because it doesn’t get any easier next time out with Bayern ready to receive us as our next host.

    1. FC Köln        1
FC Schalke 04    2

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