Marcel Risse and Yannick Gerhardt grabbed the goals to lift Peter Stöger's side eight points clear of the relegation zone with only two rounds of fixtures left to play, while leaving sixth-placed Schalke looking nervously over their shoulder at fellow UEFA Europa League hopefuls Borussia Dortmund and SV Werder Bremen.
Japanese forward Kazuki Nagasawa took his place in the Köln starting line-up for only the third time this season at the expense of Gerhardt. Schalke head coach Robert Di Matteo also recalled a couple of big names of his own for the trip to the RheinEnergieStadion, with midfield pair Julian Draxler and Kevin-Prince Boateng both involved from the get-go.
It was the hosts, though, that made the more purposeful start. Yuya Osako’s stunning diagonal ball found Jonas Hector haring down the left, but the young German left-back’s cross was snuffed out by Schalke goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann with Anthony Ujah lurking. The Royal Blues responded through Leroy Sane, who beat a couple of defenders on the edge of the Köln box before firing a few yards wide.
Schalke only threatened in fits and starts, Draxler and Boateng combining to good effect on one such occasion, only for Köln custodian Timo Horn to mop up the impending threat. The next opening yielded the breakthrough, although it was the Billy Goats that got it. Nagasawa collected Kevin Vogt’s sublime first-time pass and stung the palms of Fährmann, the loose ball falling kindly for Risse to tuck away his fifth of the season.
Di Matteo turned to Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfan for an injection of pace after the restart, but Köln - the team with the best defensive record outside the top four this season - were giving little away. Indeed, they might have doubled their lead on the hour-mark when Osako found Dusan Svento via Nagasawa. The Slovakian substitute, however, curled wide when it looked easier to score.
Gerhardt wraps it up
Nagasawa made way to a standing ovation with 20 minutes remaining. His replacement Gerhardt showed a good turn of pace to roll his marker on the right-hand side of the Schalke box, but the Köln substitute's dipping volley was always going wide.
Risse forced a strong save from Fährmann from 18 yards, although the partisan crowd were brought to their feet one last time when Gerhardt fired through a ruck of bodies to cap an impressive team display in injury time.
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