Preview: 1. FC Köln at SV Werder Bremen

1. FC Köln at SV Werder Bremen
Weser Stadium
Saturday, December 11, 2015
9:30 a.m. EST
US TV – Fox Deportes (Spanish . . . so it’s a good time to brush up or get with FoxSoccer2Go!

Hi! Welcome back!

Sorry I’ve been mostly away the last few weeks. Real life calls.

(To that end, I’ll go ahead and repeat my position of being 100% open to suggestions and support on turning this into my “real life,” at least as far as working hours are concerned. Until that happens, though, I’ll probably be apologizing more often as I’m off doing parental/adult-responsibility stuff rather than sitting here typing about our beloved club.)

Back when Ujah was "nur ein Kölsche Jung."

Back when Ujah was “nur ein Kölsche Jung.”

On the way to the car to take my elder son to school this morning, I mentioned to him that the Billy Goats are playing Anthony Ujah’s team this weekend. He froze for a second with a panicked look on his face before asking, “Why does he have a new team?”

“Remember? I told you this summer that he decided to move to a new team,” I reminded.

“Oh, I thought you said Anthony Modeste!”

With the Anthony confusion cleared up, all seemed okay for a moment. We got to the car doors when Owen asked, “We’re rooting for a tie, right Dad?”

NOOOOOOOOO!!!!

While I appreciate the time and effort Anthony Ujah took to speak with me in Florida and to send one of his jerseys to my son (an amazing thing for which I can never be grateful enough), I hope Werder loses big while being blanked at home.

I have to admit, though, I considered telling my son that I “hope Ujah will score but that we would win anyway,” but then realized I wouldn’t have meant it. I’ll just have to allow my son, his good nature, and his lack of a full grasp of how the sports world works to unite for him to want his club to drop two points tomorrow morning.

I won’t be waking him up to watch the game, though.

Ujah putting the FC out of the German Cup with the only goal in the club’s trip to the Weser in late October was bad enough. I don’t know I could handle him being joyful over a result that would be of great annoyance to me, at least for a good chunk of Saturday morning.

Anyhow, let’s get to the breakdown.

Goalkeeper

This one is probably not as lopsided a comparison as it might seem on paper.

Nothing effzeh is as consistent as Timo Horn’s excellence. His star continues to rise, even as his club’s results have flat-lined. The more Köln drops into mid-table comfort, the more pundits get excited about where Horn will seek his chance to compete in Europe.

Timo’s future almost certainly involves his playing in UEFA competitions. The question is only whether he’s part of the squad that lifts 1. FC Köln to their first-ever berth in Europa or (dare I type it?) Champions League.

If Horn feels the need to chase that opportunity elsewhere, not only will the club lose a huge building block toward that effort, but also a great comedic actor.

I don’t know whether Felix Wiedwald is delivering the goods for SV Werder Bremen’s marketing department, but it’s clear he’s not quite able to pull his defenders butts from the fire when they get burned by opposition attacks.

Let’s be fair, though, Bremen’s defense leaves much to be desired. It would be irresponsible to pin the league’s second-worst goals-against number on Wiedwald alone. He gets a lot of help from those in front of him.

The difference here is that Timo is capable of covering up well enough for the occasional defensive lapses to keep his team in games in which they could easily fall behind or even drag a stubbornly ineffective offense to a point-win. Wiedwald has not blanked a Bundesliga side yet.

. . . unless you count that 1:0 in the DFB Pokal, that is . . .

Huge Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Defensive Row

The effzeh defense has yielded just two goals the last five matches. Three of those matches were scoreless draws, so the clean sheets in those were vital. One goal came in the 1:2 at Leverkusen. The other arrived under very dubious circumstances; Raul Bobadilla’s free kick was a thing of beauty, but the Dominic Kohr dive that won the free kick was as erroneously awarded as it was shamelessly executed.

Otherwise, the team hasn’t played quite as compactly as they did in the faux-test against Bayern, but it has been a largely defense-first approach leading to the low-scoring results which have frustrated many effzeh fans longing for the days of goals and lingering in or near the top six rungs of the table. The fact is, though, the defense is much more reliable since Dominic Maroh replaced Frederik Sørensen in the central defense, making it a no-brainer that Peter Stöger would lean heavily on the unit that led to so much success last year in keeping the team from returning to the second division.

Werder Bremen has been so inconsistent in their back end, they’d almost certainly take Stöger’s playing style if they could get similar results to get away from the relegation threat.

The hosts will almost certainly get a confidence boost from the recent form of the effzeh offense and the result from the cup tie, but they will also know in the back of their head that they, as a rule, concede goals. The pressure to not make the mistake that blows the chance to keep the sheet clean is also often the reason that mistakes happen . . . especially with relegation lingering . . . especially in front of an expectant home crowd.

And it’s those small moments, rather than consistently poor play, that have contributed to Werder’s poor defensive record.

Jannik Vestergaard helped improve Werder’s poor defense when he arrived from Hoffenheim last winter, paving the way for Assanyi to move to the bench, where it’s more difficult to turn the ball over deep in Bremen’s own defensive half. Theodor Gebre Selassie has shown improvement on the right side after a slow start to his Bundesliga career and provides threat on the counter.  Alejandro Galvez and Santiago Garcia are serviceable, if not spectacular.

The problem is that the defense is frequently under too much pressure simply due to the offense not being productive enough. In the end, they can concede six to a strong attack, as they did to Wolfsburg, or they can hold a good offense in check, as they did in allowing Bayern just one.

But there is always at least the one goal conceded. In a match like this, one might be one too many.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Midfield

It was Vogt and Lehmann in the double-pivot for the last trip to the Weser.

It was Vogt and Lehmann last week against FC Augsburg.

It was Vogt and Lehmann bolstering Stöger’s defensive theories in the midfield to great success last year.

Don’t be surprised if it’s Vogt and Lehmann again in Bremen. As much as Stöger hears your dissatisfaction with the lack of aggression offensively, he also doesn’t care what you think of it.

The question will be how many and which personnel join the reliable defensive-midfield tandem. Will it just be two on the flanks, or will Stöger deploy someone (an attacker? Yannick Gerhardt?) in the central midfield to serve as a ‘nine’?

It’d be an easier question to answer if any of the combinations showed much success. Leonardo Bittencourt on the left is about as sure a thing as you get. Otherwise, it seems possible that Marcel Risse’s time at right back may be over so he can return to the midfield where he mostly belongs, which would also put an end to the rotating-striker-on-the-right-flank experiment that has yet to yield a true “EUREKA!” moment.

The midfield is a huge component of the defensive strength, but an even bigger contributor to offensive failings. There is simply not enough creativity or consistency coming from the midfield with possession.

Viktor Skripnik, too, has been juggling ideas in his own midfield in an effort to find a winning combination. Luckily for him, he has recent proof that he can deploy a 4-1-4-1 against Köln to great results. Unluckily for him, this will be his first game trying to find a solution without the services of Zlatko Junuzovic, who was forced from last weekend’s 1:1 with Stuttgart with a shoulder injury.

Philip Bargfrede is certain to be the central defense, whether Skripnik uses that 4-1-4-1 or shifts to the diamond without Junuzovic. Veterans Clemens Fritz and Fin Bartels can too be expected, regardless of formation decisions. Youngsters Levin Öztunali and Florian Grillitsch seem the most-likely options to flesh out the midfield options, with Grillitsch maybe having the edge for having played already against Köln and showing lots of promise in his usage so far.

Both units have questions. Both units are complicit in their team’s overall issues. Junuzovic’s absence is a huge blow to Werder’s set-piece threat, though that doesn’t necessarily make it as non-existent as Köln’s has been the last few seasons.

For me, too close to call decisively, but as Werder does have some veteran presence in the middle . . .

Advantage: Werder Bremen

Anthony . . . uh, sorry . . . Attack

This is the fixture I have been dreading since the fateful day of THE photo, though drawing Werder in the cup did provide a bit of an unexpected early release of some of the anxiety about facing a former favorite player in enemy colors.

100 percent

100% not the way you want your transfer to leak during the season.

While rumors persisted that Bremen would sign Anthony Ujah from 1. FC Köln, many of us were dismissive of the idea. The Nigerian striker had become a cult hero in Köln for his goal-scoring capabilities in helping the club return to the Bundesliga and then to stay there. “Unser Tünn” was regularly lauded as a “Kölsche Jung” (Cologne Boy) and could hardly have been more beloved by effzeh fans.

Then it all went instantly sour one morning as photos emerged of Ujah posing for pictures with the “100% Werder” sign behind him and with Werder representative who had just inked the striker to a deal to move from Köln.

The backlash was immediate and vehement. Even now, you can be assured there will be a lot of vitriol aimed at Ujah by the visiting fans Saturday. The way the transfer and its announcement were handled left a sour taste in the mouths of many loyal effzeh, many of whom wanted to see Ujah permanently relegated to “former player,” despite there being games left on the schedule & first-division status yet to be secured.

Of course, all the emotions are one thing, but another reason to dread facing Ujah is that we know he can score some goals. We may now be a little more willing to admit that we saw some limitations in Ujah’s game, but we also know that he often was forced to scrap his goal total together out of nearly nothing. The lack of flow in the offensive phase of the game left Ujah battling for headers on long passes from the back in order to find opportunity. That’s not really his game, which is probably part of the reason he wanted to move to Bremen to play under Skripnik’s more-attacking philosophies, particularly in tandem with Franco Di Santo.

And then Di Santo made a late-window move to Schalke, leaving Ujah in the familiar role of being a relatively unsupported striker fighting to piece together the odd chance.

Early in the season, it looked like it all worked out for the better for the effzeh. Anthony Modeste scored in six of his first eight Bundesliga appearances as a Billy Goat, while Ujah managed just two in that time.

The worm has since turned.

Modeste has not scored since the match day 8 victory at Schalke. Ujah has five in Bremen’s last six games and is currently on a two-match scoring streak.

And, as much as I hate to bring it up again, he did get the game-winner against his former club in the cup tie to get Bremen to the third round.

I’m not convinced Modeste can’t turn his form around and return to good standing, though I don’t know that we can expect him to be as consistent as he was in the early going.

Ujah, though, is doing what Ujah has always done. He may disappoint from time to time, but also can bring his supporters to their feet when they weren’t expecting it.

Advantage: Werder Bremen

Coach

Viktor Skripnik’s predecessor, Robin Dutt, was fired after 1. FC Köln’s visit to Weser Stadium last season. The loss was Werder’s fifth consecutive and sixth of the season, which was just nine matches old by that point. Under Skripnik, Werder won three of their next four to bounce off the floor of the league table and above the relegation zone. The rejuvenated green-and-whites also went unbeaten in Skripnik’s first seven home matches in charge, winning six times in that run and ultimately flirted with European placement over the course of the season’s second half.

Meanwhile, Peter Stöger was lauded for getting Köln to the middle of the table the first season up from the second division, but setting a league record for scoreless draws never had the same sensational feel of the Werder rebirth under “the Skripniker.”

But that was last year.

Skripnik’s star may be slightly tarnished for Werder’s struggles this year, but the club seems prepared to stand by their man for the time being, even through stretches of rough results, perhaps an acknowledgement that the coach was saddled with some unexpected personnel issues (i.e. the loss of Di Santo).

Stöger takes the occasional hit from the fan base for “boring” or “scared rabbit” football. One could even argue that the defense-heavy approach leaves open the opportunity for results to pivot on the questionable officiating decisions that have been the primary focus following losses to Hannover and Augsburg.

Still, even after losing main goal-source Ujah, the effzeh have not been remotely associated with relegation talk and sit comfortably tenth right now, already halfway to the fabled 40-point safe-from-the-drop mark. The consistency of the team and their on-field cohesion is a credit to the coaching.

There should be no doubt. Skripnik surely has a bright future in coaching, but Stöger’s looks brighter.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Form

If you ask the complaining segment of Planet Effzeh, they’ll point out the lack of goals. The effzeh have been blanked in six of their last seven. The only two goals since October 4 came from Dominic Maroh (a defender!). They might mention that the defensive posture has helped the team collect six points in that stretch, despite the goal drought.

Werder has seven points from their last seven games, so that would lean toward the hosts.

However, since a November 8 win over Augsburg, Werder has been outscored 10:2. Most of that gaudy number came in a 6:0 loss at Wolfsburg. As painful at that result was, it may pale in comparison to the 1:3 loss the following week in the Nordderby against hated rival Hamburger SV. Werder was en route to a third-consecutive loss to one of the few clubs below them last weekend before Ujah delivered a 71st-minute equalizer to take a point home from Stuttgart.

Werder is playing below their expectations and getting the according results. The fans in Köln may not like it, but their club is largely executing what their coach wants. It’s only the offensive part of the game that’s flagging.

Semi-success trumps a complete lack thereof.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Health

Köln will have all of their regulars available to them.

The loss of Junuzovic leaves a big hole in the Werder squad that cannot easily be filled. He’s a key player.

Advantage: 1. FC Köln

Intangibles

This is pretty much ALL Werder.

Okay, Werder is dead-last in the home table with just three points from seven matches, so that does favor the FC, as does Werder having achieved a new club record last week of 18 for consecutive matches conceding.

Otherwise, there is the cup loss as precedent for how the current squads stack up. Historically, the story is the same. Werder has won seven of the last eight home matches against Köln. In that same eight-match stretch, Köln has scored in just one of those meetings.

And guess who has given the effzeh the most road losses in club history . . .

Strong Advantage: Werder Bremen

Prediction

It’s either that I want to believe or that I MUST believe that 1. FC Köln is going to get three points by way of Anthony Modeste ending his dry stretch. That Werder concedes so regularly makes me eager to pick my club to win and maybe even by multiple goals.

On the flip side, we all saw what a dud performance this team is currently capable of displaying in that loss to Augsburg, not to mention in the cup loss to this same Bremen squad. Besides, now that they’ve already established a new record for conceding, wouldn’t it be fitting for them to finally post a clean sheet against such a traditionally gracious guest?

There is virtually no outcome that would be of great shock to me from this match. If Junuzovic were playing, I’d consider a free-kick goal a big possibility. Ujah getting another against his former employers is also a strong possibility, though I think the absence of Junuzovic will give Köln freedom to defend more aggressively and do so successfully. If Werder couldn’t get much opportunity against the only defense worse than them in Stuttgart, why should they against a proven unit?

All of this should, in turn, open things up for the offense to get its chances, but that’s all theoretical.

I’ll stick with my traditional pick.

    1. FC Köln           2
Werder Bremen    0

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