Alongside the Ruhr district Klassiker between Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke 04, the meetings of 1. FC Köln and Borussia Mönchengladbach unquestionably constitute one of the German game's great traditional derbies. After a two-year hiatus, the Rhineland rivals are preparing to go head-to-head on Sunday (17:30 CEST) to the backdrop of a doubtlessly fervid atmosphere at a packed-to-overflowing RheinEnergie Station.
Köln giving nothing away
These are heady days for the hosts, who have marked their return to the top table by thus far staunchly repelling all opposition efforts to plant the ball in their net. The only side in the division still to concede a goal, Köln would naturally be more than happy to further extend their own new club record of three clean sheets to start the campaign when the neighbours come calling at the weekend. Head coach Peter Stöger acknowledges “it's a good feeling” and a turn of events “we certainly hadn't expected,” but at the same time he has been quick to dampen some of the excessively euphoric noises currently swirling around the club.
“Anyone looking realistically at the big picture will already have reconciled themselves to the fact that we're going to lose games as well,” the 48-year-old former Austria international said before the Matchday 3 trip to SC Paderborn. And while they didn't lose that one against their fellow promotees, they had a clutch of top-drawer saves from keeper Timo Horn to thank for the point salvaged. The 21-year-old Cologne native is now unbeaten in 540 competitive minutes stretching back to last season and for him, the game against Mönchengladbach is “the ultimate derby, and always has been. It'd be fantastic to keep another clean sheet in that one.”
Stöger agrees that Sunday's encounter will very likely be the most severe test of his rock-solid defence to date but he will be sticking to his philosophical guns, having more than once stressed that, “the basic plan is to go into every game looking to come away with three points, even if it's against Bayern München. That's not meant in an arrogant way. You'll get your chances in every game, what matters is producing the goods on the day.”
Opponents Mönchengladbach certainly did just that last time out, putting in a breathtaking display of counter-attacking football to dismantle FC Schalke 04. Stars of the Borussia Park show were forward trio Max Kruse, André Hahn and Raffael, who divvied up the goals between them in the 4-1 victory over the UEFA Champions League contenders. “Great stuff” was two-goal summer signing André Hahn's verdict, while fit-again Germany international Kruse acknowledged that in terms of the forward play it could “hardly get any better.” Attacking midfielder Raffael was back to his best as well, freeing up Kruse for number three with a pinpoint pass before rounding out the scoring himself. “Max, André and myself were able to combine well,” the 29-year-old Brazilian later modestly acknowledged, adding that “we were all ready for this game and determined to win it.”
'Not your average game'
With the reservation that “Schalke dominated the first 20 minutes,” head coach Lucien Favre was likewise best satisfied with the team's first league win of the campaign after successive draws. Now, the Swiss tactician wants to see his charges maintain that momentum with a follow-up success at Köln. If the historical form book is any guide, the odds of them doing so are propitious: no other side can match Gladbach's record of 44 Bundesliga wins against the Billy Goats, who have not managed to best their local rivals in any of the last seven head-to-heads.
That said, form both recent and historical can often be discounted in such feisty neighbourhood duels. For Kruse, now in his second season at Borussia, it will be a first taste of the Rhineland special. “A derby's a derby,” he says, “I can only imagine what it's going to be like on Sunday.” Attacking all-rounder Marcel Risse, another of Köln's locally-sourced talents, can fill him in there from first-hand experience: “It's not your average game, anyone from around here will tell you that – the whole city's totally geared up for it.”