Game Preview: 1. FC Köln vs. VfL Wolfsburg

1. FC Köln vs VfL Wolfsburg
Müngersdorfer Stadion (a.k.a. Rhein Energie Arena)
Saturday, August 22, 2015
9:30 a.m. EST

The 1. FC Köln open the home schedule Saturday with arguably their toughest visitor of the first half of the season, when 2014-15 vice-champion and 2015 DFB Cup winner VfL Wolfsburg come calling Saturday.

Here is Planet Effzeh’s methodical breakdown of how the two clubs stack-up.

Goalkeeper

Timo Horn’s second Bundesliga season did not start quite as spectacularly as his debut in the league, when he posted four clean sheets in his first four matches.

The goal allowed, though, did come from the penalty spot, so that can be easily explained away as belonging more to Simon Zoller for his questionable decision to tackle when and where he did than to Horn’s performance. Timo did have the right side for Daniel Didavi’s conversion attempt, but the Stuttgarter had placed it well enough and with enough power behind it to elude Horn’s mitts.

Otherwise, Horn did have to make a few saves in a match where VfB Stuttgart had the Köln end under continual waves of attack. Horn kept the sheet clean at least long enough for his teammates to win the breakthrough, leading to victory.

Koen Casteels is not the first-choice keeper at Wolfsburg, but with Diego Benaglio continuing to battle issues with his back, the Belgian will get the call on Saturday for his fourth competitive match since returning from a loan to Werder Bremen.

Casteels has had a fine start to his season, most-notably having made the only penalty save to help Wolfsburg beat Bayern for the DFL Supercup earlier this month. The one goal conceded Sunday to Eintracht Frankfurt in a 2:1 Wolfsburg victory was the only challenging shot Casteels faced all day, but a win is a win.

The former Hoffenheim number one showed both good and bad as a regular Bundesliga goalkeeper, but his fluctuating form led him to being cast aside for the purchase of Oliver Baumann from Freiburg. He also finished the season as the starter in Bremen last season.

While he has shown enough in the past to be the top keeper for a club with European aspirations and to have earned some national-team attention, Casteels has already faded into a second-choice guy at the young age of 23. If and when Benaglio is again healthy, he’ll be back on the bench.

Meanwhile, Horn remains a guy on the radar of bigger clubs across the continent. He’ll be taking a backseat to nobody anytime soon.

Strong Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Defense

The new tandem in the center of the Köln defense played a significant role in keeping the game scoreless Sunday, having been kept fairly busy turning away repeated Stuttgart advances. Frederik Sørensen left a strong impression, especially with is work in the air, while Dominique Heintz showed no signs of being intimidated by the shift from second division to first.

Jonas Hector continued to show that he’s growing into his own big boots, playing with the confidence of an established national-level player, rather than the “Aw, shucks!” guy with the humble nature of a small-town guy still a bit surprised to have made it there. Hector has really begun to assert himself on the field the way a good leader should.

Right back Pawel Olkowski was pointed out as being one of the primary underperformers Sunday. He eventually was taken off and replaced by midfielder Marcel Risse, so ineffective was he against Stuttgart. It wasn’t so bad that one would rethink allowing Miso Brecko to go, but more will definitely be expected moving forward.

All in all, the Stuttgart offense kept the Köln defense very actively busy, but the quality chances ended up being fairly few for the possession advantage.

The Wolfsburg defense is anchored in by the center-back duo of Naldo and Timm Klose, who are formidable both on land and in the air. There is little to be gained by attacking the center of that defensive back four, as Eintract Frankfurt learned Sunday. Additionally, Naldo is a legitimate weapon in the offensive part of the game. He’s just a dangerous player for Wolfsburg.

Left back Ricardo Rodriguez, too, is a well-known Bundesliga commodity. He’s a dominant presence on the left flank, often providing service into the penalty area with accurate crosses. He’s also a threat from dead-ball spots. Rodriguez was not too impressive in the season opener, with Haris Seferovic continually taking charge on that side of the field, but his value is unquestioned.

If there was a weakness in the Wolfsburg back line Sunday, it was on the right side, with Vierinha losing one-on-one battles with even Bastian Oczipka. That said, he did lead his team in number of victorious two-fights.

All in all, Wolfsburg’s Bundesliga rise is generally credited to the star-powered offense, but the reliably stout back line is as much a factor as anything else.

Advantage: VfL Wolfsburg

Midfield

Matthias Lehmann and Maxi Arnold will likely be pivotal figures Saturday.

Lehmann & Arnold will likely be pivotal.

Matthias Lehmann was kept busy Sunday, as was Kevin Vogt when he entered the match at halftime for Yannick Gerhardt as a well-needed second defensive-orientedmidfielder. But, as with the defensive back line, the fact is that the job was done successfully. The problem was in keeping the ball and transitioning to offense, but when it came to preventing goals, it was achieved through the collective effort on the defensive end.

But that transition game . . . not good enough!

Gerhardt and Milos Jojic had little influence on the game as Köln could not gain a foothold in the offensive phase. Stuttgart can, and should, be credited for their play, but an answer from the guys in the middle of the field would have been beneficial.

Risse and Bittencourt, at least in the first half, were similarly absent from proceedings, though both played important roles in the eventual victory. Risse’s move to right back to replace Olkowski so Simon Zoller could move into his right-midfield spot helped solidify the right side. The addition of Vogt seemed to help Bittencourt find some room to work on the left.

Jojic eventually made way for Yuya Osako who was simply more active going forward than the guy he replaced. Then again, as a striker, Osako tends to want to be forward.

Wolfsburg used Joshua Guilavogui and Maximilian Arnold as the double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1 Sunday to stand fast against a supposed attacking Frankfurt side. For the most part, they were very effective in the same was Köln’s was: they conceded the lion’s share of chances, but not much of grave threat. Arnold is usually deployed in more of an attacking role, but was no more effective than when flopping to the ground when brushed by Frankfurt attackers. He won several free kicks with his antics. Köln would be wise to beware of such shenanigans.

Normally the biggest threat in the Wolfsburg midfield, Kevin DeBruyne, appears to be no threat for Saturday. If his long-rumored transfer to a big-money English club goes through in time, he’ll simply no longer be part of the club. If not, the lingering question of his status seems as good a defense as a team needs to stop him. DeBruyne was utterly ineffective against Frankfurt Sunday. He rolled two soft shots to keeper Lucas Hradecky, but nowhere to be seen were the passes delivered with precision into dangerous spots that made him many folks’ pick for “player of the year” last year. Complicating his mental game was a brutal tackle by Carlos Zambrano just before the half. DeBruye, visibly irritated, stood up and shoved the Peruvian known for his physical style. Both players earned their yellow card, but Zambrano ended up the victor in having helped keep KDB off his game.

On the opposite side, Ivan Perisic was a legitimate problem for Frankfurt, but between a nagging issue with his knee and the dangling of huge piles of money for him by Inter Milan, his status for Saturday continues to be in doubt.

Max Kruse, newly arrived from Borussia Mönchenlgadbach, will play, though, and showed he’s ready to contribute. His first scene for his new club was beating two defenders to get the space to deliver a terrific cross to Perisic for the first goal of the game. Kruse otherwise shined whenever the opportunity presented. He’s quality and will flourish in the Wolfsburg attack.

If no Perisic and no DeBruyne, then who? Andre Schürrle is also out injured. Daniel Caligiuri is close to returning from his injury, but may not be fully ready for a full 90 on Saturday. Perhaps Aaron Hunt, who came on late against Frankfurt, could jump into the action. It could be that Dieter Hecking uses a back in the defensive midfield and moves Arnold up to help fill some gaps.

Whatever the answer, we might not know what the Wolfsburg midfield will look like until twenty minutes have been played Saturday. A fully healthy and complete squad would give a very strong edge to the visitors, but we can assume it will be at least not that.

Slight Advantage: VfL Wolfsburg

Attack

Anthony Modeste didn’t get many chances to shine last weekend, but when they came, shine he did. His effort chasing after a ball from Bittencourt led to his being fouled by keeper Przemyslaw Tyton and then converting his own penalty for the first goal of the game. He later won a ball near the center line and led a two-on-Tyton attack before getting an assist for giving Osako a can’t-miss chance.

Bas Dost just keeps scoring.

Bas Dost, too, had a great Sunday. He grabbed a goal in his usual “right time, right place” fashion, burying the ball in the top of the net when a boffed clearance boundedright into his area. Additionally, Dost showed he can deliver a well-chosen and -placed pass from his forward position and that he’s not above tracking back and challenging the ball being brought out of his end by the opposition.

Dost got one of his 16 goals last season from the two times he played against 1. FC Köln.

Modeste, however, loves playing against Wolfsburg. In three starts against the VfL the last two seasons, he has four goals and an assist.

Let’s hope that Modeste’s dominance against Wolfsburg continues and the Bas Dost goal parade takes a slight break, but the more proven scorer entering this season comes with the visitor.

Slight Advantage: VfL Wolfsburg

Coach

Relatively speaking, Peter Stöger has found little other than success since arriving in Germany. Granted, most of that has come in the second division and then with modest goals in the first.

Winning is fun!

Dieter Hecking struggled in Nürnberg with a roster that was good enough to get his eventual successor fired as the team headed to relegation to the second division. His reputation continues to grow following the Wolfsburg accomplishments of last season.

You can look at the lukewarm returns Wolfsburg has gotten from acquiring Schürrle and wonder what Hecking will eventually unlock in the German national player considering what he eventually got from guys like DeBruyne and Dost.

Advantage: VfL Wolfsburg

Form

Köln enter knowing they won their opener despite not having their best performance, but also knowing that Wolfsburg is a many shades a better opponent than is VfB Stuttgart.

Wolfsburg, too, got a win in a game they didn’t exactly dominate. They scored on their first shot on goal and barely threatened again, eventually credited with five shots, from which two goals were earned. They won’t always convert at that high a rate, nor would anyone expect they’ll take so few shots on most days.

Advantage: Push

Health

Köln will likely go without Yuya Osako Saturday. Otherwise, everyone from last weekend is available to Peter Stöger.

Central defenders Dominic Maroh and Mergim Mavraj remain unavailable due to longer-term injuries.

As noted, Wolfsburg could now be without Perisic Saturday, along with Schürrle, Caligiuri, and Benaglio who are continued absences from the team.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Intangibles

Köln will be boosted by a raucous packed house Saturday . . . or will those who’ve not yet played in white before the 1. FC Köln faithful shrink before the new background?

Because the club lifted a stadium ban of a fan group imposed due to their part in the “storming” of the pitch at last year’s derby in Mönchengladbach, the organized fan groups in the ‘South Curve’ expect to be at their fullest voice since they opted to silence themselves in support of their banned brethren. The lifting of the ban is not without its detractors or controversy, but it will undoubtedly have the effect of returning Müngersdorfer to it’s status as one of the best home atmospheres in all of football.

Meanwhile, Wolfsburg arrives a club worried about a lot of off-pitch issues. Transfer sagas continue to swirl around two of the team’s biggest offensive entities. DeBruyne, by all appearances, will be a non-presence, but will his pending departure be a distraction? Even if everyone mentally adjusts fairly easily, the whole left behind by the Belgian is immense. He was a huge reason Wolfsburg finished second, won the DFB Cup, and advanced deep in Europa League last season.

Whatever the case, 1. FC Köln will be playing with the team they expect to have the rest of the season. Wolfsburg aren’t sure who all is leaving or who will arrive to replace them. Without question, they’ll be a strong team before and after the deadline, but all the uncertainty makes them as ripe for an upset this weekend as they’ll likely be all season long.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Prediction

I get a feeling that last year’s season finale might be a template for what we see Saturday, though instead of two clubs playing out the string, it’s one still finding its feet with a new collection of players and another unsure of what it’ll look like the next day.

Wolfsburg have the talent, without question, but can they mentally overcome the continued distractions to perform better than they did last weekend?

1. FC Köln             1
VfL Wolfsburg    1

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