Harry Houdini may be regarded as the greatest escape artist of all time but it appears that Cologne are determined to give the famous illusionist a run for his money this season. Recent displays have teased their fans into believing they could yet avoid relegation.
Surely they couldn't, could they? After the Billy Goats moved off the foot of the Bundesliga table on Matchday 27 for the first time since August 2017, bundesliga.com outlines five reasons why Stefan Ruthenbeck's charges might yet stay up.
1) Returning stars finding form
Cologne struggled to cope with the strain of playing in three competitions in the first half of the season, and lost the majority of their starting line-up to injury prior to the winter break. Senior figures including Jonas Hector, Leonardo Bittencourt, Marcel Risse, Dominic Maroh, Simon Zoller, Yuya Osako, Claudio Pizarro and Jhon Cordoba all missed large chunks of the campaign with a variety of ailments. That led to youngster Lukas Klünter – normally a right-back – playing as a striker for several games, alongside a handful of inexperienced rookies.
The winter break allowed plenty of players the chance to recover, and the club also made two shrewd signings in January, bringing in striker Simon Terodde and attacking midfielder Vincent Koziello. Slowly but surely, confidence has seeped back into the team, and key figures such as Hector, Bittencourt and Risse are carrying the side forward. With fewer injuries to contend with and 21 points still available, there is plenty time for Cologne to catch up.
Watch: Koziello "We still have hope"
2) Playing well, experienced goalscorers available
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the return to fitness of Cologne's best players has coincided with a noticeable improvement in the team's performances. They have beaten Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hamburg, RB Leipzig and Bayer Leverkusen in 2018, but even in games that ended in defeat – such as the 3-2 reverse at home to Stuttgart on Matchday 25 – the Billy Goats looked organised at the back and dangerous going forward
That latter point is crucial. Cologne scored just 10 times in the first half of the season, but have found the net 17 times since January. Bittencourt's directness and trickery on the wing has been integral to that, while fit-again strikers Pizarro (one goal, one assist), Osako (three goals, one assist) and Terodde (five goals, one assist) mean the team now have experienced goalscorers in the final third.
The newcomers have certainly helped in that regard. Koziello netted in the win at Leipzig in February, while Terodde is already Cologne’s top goalscorer only nine games after returning to the club.
3) Struggling rivals
What would Hamburg, Mainz and Wolfsburg give to have an upturn like Cologne’s? While the Billy Goats have picked up impressive wins over high-flyers Leipzig and Leverkusen since the end of February, their relegation rivals have been floundering.
Hamburg are now bottom of the table after taking the lead against Hertha Berlin only to slump to a fifth defeat in six games. The Red Shorts have not won a league match since beating Hoffenheim 3-0 in November, and they failed to make the most of home advantage in a 0-0 draw against Mainz at the start of March.
Mainz, who are five points above Cologne in the relegation play-off place, seemed to have steadied the ship by picking up five points in a three-game unbeaten run between Matchdays 23 and 25. Since then, though, defeats against Schalke and Eintracht Frankfurt – conceding four goals and scoring none – may have dented confidence again.
Wolfsburg are now firmly on Cologne’s radar as well. The Wolves have been dragged into the relegation pack following a run of five defeats in six, and only a better goal difference keeps them above Mainz in the standings.
4) Favourable fixtures in the run-in
Cologne’s belief will also be strengthened by the knowledge that they face both Mainz and Wolfsburg before the end of the season. The Billy Goats host the former on Matchday 29, and will be fully aware that the 05ers have won only once on the road all season.
Wolfsburg have managed only two home wins to date, so Cologne will be hoping they still have a chance of saving themselves when they travel there on the final day.
In between, the two-time Bundelsiga champions will take on Hertha Berlin and Freiburg – two teams who have not been in great touch of late – while their last home game comes against Bayern Munich on the penultimate day. Bayern will surely have another league title in the bag by then, so the Billy Goats could be facing a visiting side who are less motivated than usual, and who could opt to give many of their second-string players some game time.
Watch: Look back on Claudio Pizarro's remarkable 20-year goalscoring record!
5) It's been done before
History is also on Cologne’s side in the sense that dramatic escapes are something of a tradition in the Bundesliga. In 2012/13, Hoffenheim looked dead and buried before winning four and drawing three of their last 10 matches. The last of those victories came on the final day, when they somehow managed to beat Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund away from home to send Fortuna Düsseldorf down.
Eintracht Frankfurt’s escape act in 1998/99 was even more spectacular. They were six points from safety with four games to go, but won all of their remaining matches to beat the drop. Those facts only hint at the full scale of the drama, however, since the Eagles needed a late Jan Age Fjortoft strike to save them on the final day. The Norwegian’s intervention gave Eintracht a 5-1 win over Kaiserslautern and relegated Nürnberg – who had started the day in 12th – on goals scored.
With a rescue act like that in mind, the task ahead for Cologne might suddenly not seem all that daunting.