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Mar 14, 2012

Cologne turning sour

Isn't it amazing how often Cologne feature prominently in these concise weekly reports, even though they are having neither an awful nor a fantastic season? Or maybe it's not that amazing after all, considering the club have a well-earned reputation for being a constant source of turmoil and upheaval; a headline-generating machine whose inner workings will forever remain mysterious to the outsider. And probably also to the insider.

On Saturday, roughly three hours after a crucial and dramatic 1-0 win against Hertha Berlin, the club announced they would part ways with director of football Volker Finke, who had been appointed barely 400 days earlier to bring some much-needed stability and professionalism to the club.

Nearly everything about this turn of events was so unexpected that you almost had to call it logical, considering this is Cologne, where they definitely do things differently. Most observers had presumed that the days of coach Stale Solbakken were numbered, considering the team's recent results and his growing feud with Finke, and that Finke would sooner or later become caretaker manager, like he did last season.

But with the benefit of hindsight it appears that the club did not want to lose yet another coach who is popular with the fans (such as when Frank Schaefer stepped down last April after differences with Finke). What's more, this coach - Solbakken - appears to be much more of a Cologne type of person, emotional and jovial yet obstinate, than Finke, whom many people at the club apparently considered a wiseacre. "It was an interesting year," was all Finke would say during a press conference on Sunday. "It was never boring." Of course not, this is Cologne!

The Finke decision overshadowed the game that had preceded the announcement. Lukas Podolski, who's rarely been out of the headlines in the last few weeks because of his likely move to Arsenal in the summer, played another blinder to underline he's having an excellent season. Apart from being the one player his team-mates always turn to in moments of crisis, he has also scored or set up 21 goals in 21 appearances. Then he was sent off for the first time in league football.

Television replays later showed that the straight red card was entirely unjustified, yet Podolski will have to sit out one game, the minimum suspension following a sending-off, no matter if it was correct or not. In a strange twist of events, bearing in mind that the red card (and eight match ban) for Hamburg striker Paolo Guerrero one week earlier was still on people's minds and being discussed, the very next day brought an obvious case of violent conduct that escaped the referee.

During Sunday's match between Werder Bremen and Hannover 96, Bremen striker Claudio Pizarro gave his marker Emanuel Pogatetz a slap in the face. Pizarro later said he had not intended to hit the defender, but on Tuesday the German FA's board of control informed the club it was now officially investigating the matter.

What this means is that Bremen are asked to file a statement in defence of the player before the German FA will then, based on the available video evidence, issue a verdict on Wednesday. Judging from past experiences, it seems almost certain that Pizarro will be suspended for a couple of weeks. In February, Pogatetz himself was retroactively penalised on account of video evidence.

This is very bad news for Werder, who travel to Dortmund this coming weekend and are currently also without forward Marko Arnautovic, who suffered a ligament injury while playing ... no, not football but with his dog. Bremen's fierce rivals Hamburg, meanwhile, have already suffered the first effects of the Guerrero suspension, losing 3-1 at Schalke.

Which, in a way, leads us back to Cologne. As has been mentioned, the team hung in there and won the game against Hertha. Three other clubs in the bottom third of the table also added to their points tally at the weekend, all with scoreless draws: Kaiserslautern and Freiburg defended valuable results in Stuttgart and Gladbach, respectively, while Augsburg, who look like a different team compared to the first half of the season, held their own against league leaders Dortmund and deservedly bagged an unexpected point.

This has consequences for two other clubs, and Hamburg are one of them. The tradition-laden team, the only founding member of the Bundesliga to have never spent any time outside the top flight, are suddenly back in the relegation fight, having lost three of the last four games. And Hertha, too, are now in serious trouble again, which has to do with the fixture list.

This is clearly a team that needs to be jolted awake - "I have to say that I cannot see total commitment over 90 minutes, while the other teams earn points by fighting ardently," goalkeeper Thomas Kraft worryingly said on Saturday - but in two weeks, Hertha have to travel to Mainz, who are racing up the standings and for whom Mohamed Zidan is unstoppbale (having now scored six goals in six games since he returned to the club). And next, Hertha host none other than Bayern Munich.

Bayern, meanwhile, are on a roll, having scored 14 goals in the last two games. On Saturday, they demolished Hoffenheim 7-1, the sixth time they scored four or more goals at home this season, and followed this up on Tuesday with a 7-0 win over FC Basel in the Champions League.

The Basel game was the 27th match this season, in all competitions, in which Bayern have taken the lead; they have won 26 of them. The only time they dropped points after getting on the scoreboard first was the Champions League group game at Napoli, drawn 1-1. As impressive as these statistics are, they also highlight Bayern's weaknesses so far, as they have struggled when they have fallen behind and/or played away from home.

Yet if recent form is anything to go by, Hertha will need more than the presence of good-luck charm Otto Rehhagel, one of the few Bundesliga coaches to have more wins than losses against Bayern, to stand up to the Munich giants on Saturday evening.

Speaking of Bayern, the club's honorary president, Franz Beckenbauer, also had a comment on the situation at Cologne. Even the man whose own club was once dubbed Hollywood FC for habitually generating non-footballing news, marvelled at what's going on at the river Rhine.

"There are clubs who seem to need unrest like this," he said, adding: "Wolfgang Overath has left, Volker Finke is gone, Podolski will probably leave. I ask myself, is the goat, the club mascot, still there?" For the time being, yes.

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