Game Preview: 1. FC Köln – Hannover 96

1. FC Köln vs. Hannover 96
Müngersdorfer Stadion (aka RheinEnergie Stadion)
Sunday, October 18, 2015
9:30 a.m. EST
US TV – Fox Sports 2

International breaks always seem somewhat never-ending for the fan of club football, but they are at least slightly more-tolerable following a victory like the one the effzeh delivered at the expense of Schalke nearly two weeks ago.

Now comes Hannover, a club that was expected to struggle this season and has mostly done just that, currently sitting second from bottom.

And it all sets the veteran effzeh fan up nicely to have one eye on the club sitting fifth with the possibility of climbing all the way to third by taking care of a beatable opponent at home, while keeping the other firmly on a history of failure in these sorts of situations.

Removing all that, though, we can just look at all the components of the two sides and see if we can’t get a picture of how the sporting picture looks for Sunday.

Goalkeeper

I have a history with Hannover keeper Ron-Robert Zieler.

Before he was nominated for national-team service, I caught a few Hannover games and proclaimed via Twitter that I thought that maybe it was time for Zieler to get a look from Joachim Löw.

Naturally, when we’re talking Germany keepers, we are necessarily talking back-ups to Manuel Neuer, but there’s no shame in being second- or third-fiddle to a guy many consider the best keeper of his generation. I thought Zieler was playing about as well as anyone at the time and would be a great candidate to keep Löw from needing to wade into the Leno-ter Stegen rivalry/immaturity thing when prepping for the World Cup.

Essentially, I just felt I needed to brag about the one time I seem to have been right on something regarding football, and the match against Hannover did it.

Zieler was pretty sharp in blanking Werder Bremen to lead Hannover to their first season victory on match day 8. Even though Werder has been struggling and didn’t really put too much pressure on goal, Zieler definitely was the difference on a few shots.

Even so, Timo Horn is still Timo Horn. Instead of posting a clean sheet against a visiting team that had lost their three prior matches, two of them without having scored, as Zieler did to Bremen, Horn got his shutout by blanking a Schalke side that had won four consecutive and were playing before their home crowd.

Admittedly, Horn got plenty of support from an excellent defensive effort, but he deserves credit for the victory, even when the offense produced three goals.

I still like Zieler just fine and expect him to turn a few away, but if anyone is going to shut the door completely in this game, it’ll be Timo.

Slight Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Defense

Hannover’s streak of consecutive games without a loss coincided with the unavailability of Hiroki Sakai at right back. Sakai will be available in Müngersdorf, which leave Michael Frontzeck with a decision whether to re-insert his chosen starter or keep rolling with former Freiburg man Oliver Sorg to complete the back line that otherwise tends to be Christian Schulz and Marcelo in the middle and Miiko Albornoz at left back.

Sorg was a source of opportunity for Bremen on match day 8, turning the ball over in his own end a few times to create counter-strike opportunities. Albornoz was no better on the left side, also surrendering possession frequently with no real challenge, while also proving vulnerable to speed and skill. Most of Werder’s best chances originated from Albornoz territory.

Schulz and, to a lesser extent, Marcelo did a lot of turning away crosses that came from either flank and cleaned up a few other situations when the defending on the flank failed. Between Leonardo Bittencourt and Marcel Risse, the effzeh has the skill and speed to cause trouble on their respective flanks, which means it could come down to how Schulz and Marcelo handle Big Anthony Modeste.

Our back line continues to be solid, even with some questionable moments. The debacle in Frankfurt is all but forgotten, while Peter Stöger stuck with Dominique Heintz and Frederik Sørensen in the middle, even once Dominic Maroh was again healthy and available. Pawel Olkowski had arguably his best game of the season against Schalke, while Jonas Hector continues to be a gem, regardless of whatever nonsense Jogi Löw wants to throw his way in the form of criticism of his preparedness for high-level play.

Two national-team players are the defensive row bookends. All good.

Basically, if our back four can silence the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Franco Di Santo, Max Meyer, and Leroy Sane when coming in hot, they ought to be able to handle guys like Kenan Karaman, Artur Sobiech, and Leon Andreassen.

Strong Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Midfield

If there are guys who actually worry me from this Hannover side, they are from the midfield. Hiroshi Kiyotake produces a lot of dangerous balls, and Salif Sane is a force in the air, giving added danger to set pieces.

While I think Kiyotake causes problems when he gets on the ball, Karaman and Andreassen haven’t been doing enough to help his strong efforts this season be worth too much.

Manuel Schmiedebach pairs with Sane in the defensive midfield, and they complement one another quite well. I hate to say it, but Hannover is actually getting better play from their defensive-mids than we’ve seen from the Matthias Lehmann-Kevin Vogt pairing.

Gerhardt’s been good enough to get time with Germany’s U21 side over the break.

Fortunately, the recent play of Yannick Gerhardt makes it very likely we will not see that duo at the double-pivot and will instead get another healthy dose of the talented youngster who seems to be developing at a rapid pace. His 0:2 at Schalke was a work of art, as he deftly got the defenders to move out of his way before he drilled his shot past Ralf Fährmann.

We’ve seen Gerhardt play well before, though, and then fade back into “well, he’s still young” territory. Sustaining his recent high level of play would definitely be a positive sign of professional maturity.

Otherwise, as I alluded to before, I think Risse and former Hannover fan-favorite Bittencourt can be the keys to this game. They will have opportunity to win battles on the flanks and create chances. In particular, I think Sorg is susceptible to the sort of pressure Bittencourt is not shy of putting on defenders bringing the ball up his side. With Modeste a tempting target, it’ll come down to the choices they make and the precision of their passes and/or shots, but I’m confident the opportunities will present themselves.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Attack

Artur Sobiech is an attacker who doesn’t really attack. His two goals this season has already matched his 2014-15 output, so I suppose there is that, but both goals come in a 2:4 loss to Borussia Dortmund.

From what I saw in his performance against Bremen, Sobiech can end up with the ball in dangerous spots, but somehow fails to make a move to get clear for a shot. He just ends up firing the ball into a defender, if he doesn’t first have the ball taken right off his foot because he really doesn’t move that well while in possession.

And even if I’m underestimating the guy a little bit, he can’t compare to Modeste.

With Osako? Maybe.

But not Modeste.

The man who came over the summer from Hoffenheim has six goals on the season, scored in six different games. That’s some dependability right there. What we see from him is a constantly dangerous presence and a tempting target for long passes. I do think this match-up will be begging for a less-direct approach, though you can’t help but send the occasional long ball his way. He’s just been that good!

It’s not remotely a contest: 1. FC Köln

Coach

First of all, Michael Frontzeck was born in Mönchengladbach and played and coached for the ponies.

BZZZZTTTT!!!!!!!

He even got fired from St. Pauli while they were winning!

Frontzeck did somehow get the team to not lose the last four games of last season and, hence, avoid relegation, so that has to be commended, even as I seem to want to remember there being some good fortune involved in their ultimate salvation.

Look, the guy’s longest tenure is just 61-games long, and the way Hannover has looked early this season, it doesn’t seem like a good bet this job is going to go that far either.

Looks like they are having fun. Something very right about that.

This will be Peter Stöger’s 84th match with the effzeh, and I hope he stays for a few hundred more, the way he’s conducted himself. He’s cool, calm, collected, and keeps the proper perspective in a way that is nearly baffling for a coach in Köln. He’s targeting survival while flirting with European spots and just shrugs off anything daft. His teams always look like they know how to and are happy to function as a single unit, which may not always have the eye appeal, but it does have the effectiveness appeal.

Another sign the guy is smooth: simply zero ill aftereffects of the Frankfurt game. It may not have been forgotten on the way back to Köln, but it seems to have otherwise left no mark on the players.

We got this one.

Strong Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Form

Hannover is on their best run of the season. A draw at Wolfsburg and a home win over Bremen ended a five-match losing streak, which saw them give both Augsburg and Stuttgart their only victories of the season.

The win at Schalke helped shake off some ill feeling about the loss in Berlin and the draw with Ingolstadt, if not quite clarifying just how good this team might be. Fifth place seems pretty high, but not at all unwarranted.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Health

For Köln, it’s just and still Mergim Mavraj. Otherwise, the team is a picture of good health.

Hannover had a brief mid-week scare when Sane had to leave training early, but he was able to return to training.

Not so for Charlison Benschop (hamstring), Andre Hoffmann (tendonitis), and Edgar Prib (ankle).

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Intangibles

This is where I have concern, simply because I’ve gotten used to the idea that it’s the seemingly winnable match coming off a feel-good result that is the one that trips up the effzeh. It was a 1:0 in Hannover that ended last season’s four match run of clean sheets, so I am somewhat wary of  Hannover, even as I clearly have little concern about them from a strict sporting perspective.

Playing in front of the home crowd, where the effzeh is unbeaten in 14, is always an advantage.

That’s good enough.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Prediction

While I will be sitting at my computer early Sunday morning with a hint of dread about this match, I do think the possibility for a very one-sided affair is in play. Those don’t always turn out to show the lopsidedness in the score line, though. I wanted to boldly go for a bigger result, but I feel like there’s a chance we’ll be nervous until late.

  1. FC Köln        2
Hannover 96    0

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