Right at the top of Peter Stöger’s Christmas Wish list? A return to full health of his depleted club.
At least, that is what you’d expect of a coach who has lost four of his regulars for the remainder of the Hinrunde, but Köln’s mindful coach wouldn’t risk damaging the esteem of the players he expects to rise to the challenge of suddenly being full-timers.
“We will manage to put a powerful corps out onto the pitch through Christmas,” promises Stöger. “As long as I have eleven guys who are under contract with us and are available for use, I must avow to them, too, that they can play.”
Initially, it seemed like it was just Dominic Maroh who was snakebitten. A collision with SV Darmstadt keeper Michael Esser in injury time of the season opener resulted in a broken rib and a six-match absence. Just twelve minutes into his first match back, Hamburger SV striker Bobby Wood threw a shoulder into Maroh. Off went the central defender again with what turned out to be a fractured collarbone that will end his footballing 2016.
Maroh’s second significant upper-body injury in just over two months came just a few days after midfielder Leonardo Bittencourt was unable to walk away from what appeared to be an innocent duel with Lukas Klünter. After being carried off by training staff, it was learned that Bittencourt suffered an injury to an ankle ligament that would have him out until at least the new year.
The biggest injury shock of the season to date arrived just two days before the city of Köln would open its Karneval season on 11.11 with celebrations throughout the city. Goalkeeping star Timo Horn was felled by his right knee. The injury was clear enough that Horn underwent surgery the very next day. Fortunate to have dodged the sort of major ligament damage that often sidelines athletes for full seasons, Horn became the third FC player to see an early end to his Hinrunde.”
Those watching the Rheinderby victory two Saturdays ago likely spent at least a few minutes trying to figure out the tactics behind attacker Artjoms Rudnevs entering the match at halftime for team captain and defensive midfielder. With the FC trailing by a goal and with Jonas Hector and Marco Höger perfectly capable of fulfilling any defensive midfield duties, it might have seemed a curious choice, but not unreasonable. We eventually learned that “Matze” had actually experienced a partial MCL rupture. Like Horn, Lehmann dodged a more-serious ligament injury, but had played his last match of the calendar year.
As if the absence of four full-time starters was not enough to threaten Köln’s early season residence in the European zone of the Bundesliga table, the aforementioned Höger has been merely a civilian presence at team training sessions this week. A kick to his knee sent him out of last weekend’s scoreless draw with FC Augsburg early in the second half. Swelling in the knee has been a continual problem ever since and threatens Höger’s availability for Saturday’s visit to TSG Hoffenheim.
Stöger said on Tuesday that there was nothing “broken” in Höger’s knee, but that as long as the swelling and pain remained, his player would not train with the team. Even with Höger again absent on Wednesday, the trainer was typically non-committal on the player’s status for Saturday.
“I know exactly as little about whether Marco will be able to play on Saturday as I know what the weather in January will be,” illustrated the trainer.
Some good news in the health department was available to the club Wednesday. Rudnevs was back on the pitch after missing Tuesday sessions with a stomach bug. So too was defender Filip Mladenovic, who had been unavailable due to flu-like symptoms.
Though using Mladenovic at left back and shifting Hector to the six, where he played some last season and again last weekend against Augsburg, would be one way to address the sudden shortage of defensive midfielders, there is also a chance we could get a glimpse of the future.
Salih Özcan has logged just 63 Bundesliga minutes in five appearances this season, but the 18-year-old Köln native already has played nearly as many minutes against Saturday’s foes. Özcan entered the second-round DFB Cup match against Hoffenheim in the 63rd minute and stuck around through the successful half-hour of extra time to celebrate Köln’s 2:1 advance to the third round. The youngster was credited with completing nearly 80% of his passes and winning 44% of his one-on-one battles in a tightly contested match which remains the only one Hoffenheim has lost since the season began.
Characteristically, Stöger refused to reveal any specific thoughts on whether his young midfielder might make his debut as a starter.
“Of course Salih is an option to be able to play from the start,” said Stöger Wednesday. “All our players are Bundesliga-ready. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be under contract with us.”