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Bundesliga: Cologne head into Europe with feet firmly on the ground

In Cologne, the excitement about the new Bundesliga season is palpable because, for the first time in 25 years, the club is back in Europe. But boss Peter Stöger is unfazed by the prospect of fighting on three fronts.

The loudspeakers on the small stage at the event to kick off the new season in Cologne vibrate with a the sound of local rapper Mo-Torres' new Europa League anthem, celebrating the Billy Goats' return to continental competition after an absence of 25 years – and 50,000 Cologne supporters sing along.

"Endlich ertönen unsere Lieder von Mailand bis Riga, wir sind international ("Finally our songs are heard from Milan to Riga, we are international)," goes the refrain. The fans simply can't wait for the upcoming season to get started.

"We have nothing to lose, last year, nobody expected us to achieve this," defender Dominique Heintz said after the last game of last season.

The three points that Cologne earned in that victory over Mainz earned them qualification for the Europa League.

"We can only win," Heintz said.

Teammate Marco Höger said the euphoria that European qualification set off was no reason to become nervous.

"We won't put ourselves under any pressure, we are looking forward to it," he said. "We want to play well and see how far we get."

'Tony was exceptional'

However, just a few weeks before the new season was set to kick off, the long and drawn-out transfer of the team's leading scorer to China put a bit of a dampener on things.  Anthony Modeste's goals will be sorely missed in the upcoming season.

"Tony was the best in terms of finishing, but the other guys have their own qualities. They are robust, they can drive towards the goal," head coach Peter Stöger told the German sports paper "Kicker." Jhon Cordoba and Sehrou Guirassy are the strikers tasked with filling Modeste's shoes.

Deutschland Fußball Bundesliga - 1. FC Köln vs. Hamburger SV (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Becker)

Anthony Modeste was the Bundesliga's third-leading scorer last season with 25 goals

 "They are really good strikers," said Stöger, who is hoping for plenty of goals from the two new signings.

With the Europa League to worry about in addition to the Bundesliga and the German Cup, Cologne are set to face a three-pronged season for the first time in a quarter of a century. You might think that this would be a somewhat daunting task for a coach, but not for Peter Stöger.

"You can always make more of something than it actually is.  We'll have weeks in which we play two games, but as the coach, my job is to adjust and make sure the team is as fresh as possible," Stöger said in his typically laid-back manner – knowing how high expectations tend to be in this Rhineland metropolis.

"I'm going into my fifth season with Cologne," the 51-year-old Austrian said. "I feel like I have never gone into a week in which there were no expectations, no matter who the opponent was, no matter where we were in the table, so not much has changed for me."

Bundesliga-Start - FC Manager Jörg Schmadtke mit Trainer Peter Stöger (picture alliance / augenklick/firo Sportphoto)

The architects of Cologne's return to European football: sporting director Jörg Schmadtke and coach Peter Stöger

The Stöger-Schmadtke project

Over the past four years Stöger, along with sporting director Jörg Schmadtke, has transformed the club bit by bit. Cologne's reputation as a chaotic club with overblown expectations is becoming a thing of the past. Stöger has not just brought success on the pitch, but he is also the calming influence that Cologne had missed for so long. In his first season he led Cologne to promotion to the Bundesliga, now he is set to lead them into a European adventure.

Despite the success, Stöger still has his feet planted firmly on the ground. The preparation for this foray into Europe have been good. The coach was able to work with almost his entire squad in training camp. The only guy missing for much of it was Jonas Hector, who was off in Russia helping Germany win the Confederations Cup.

"The atmosphere around the team is good, almost everyone is fit," new signing Jannes Horn said. "We've always been able to train with a lot of players and that's great for the team. We are looking  forward to the new season."

Season opener the 'highlight of the year'

The first Bundesliga match starts with a cracker, the Rhineland derby away to Borussia Mönchengladbach.

"There is nothing better than to start with a derby in Gladbach," Heintz said."We're going to play with the right attitude and give it all we've got. With our fans behind us, the derby promises to be a great start."

The coach went as far as to describe it as the "highlight of the year."

Stöger is aiming to take the next step with his team, even if the stated goal for this season, which he shares with both the team and upper management, is the same as it was last year – to finish in the top ten in the Bundesliga standings.

"Our focus will be on the Bundesliga, since we won promotion we have never slipped into a relegation spot," Stöger stressed. "If we can do that again and aspire to move up without any major problems, it would be a wonderful season."

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