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From carnival to crisis for Bundesliga's Cologne

Just four months after returning to European competition after a 25-year absence, Cologne find themselves rock-bottom bottom of the Bundesliga. Ahead of their trip to Hannover on Sunday, DW asks: what's gone wrong?

When the final whistle sounded at the RheinEnergieStadion on Wednesday night, the dreaded word began to be muttered among the hardcore Cologne fans in the south stand: "Abstiegskampf" – relegation battle.

Just one week earlier, those same fans had been gathering in North London in jubilant mood ahead of their club's Europa League tie against Arsenal, their first European fixture in a quarter of a century.

But the 1-0 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt, Cologne's fifth defeat their opening five Bundesliga games, left the Billy Goats bottom of the Bundesliga. After achieving their highest Bundesliga finish since 1992 last season, what's gone wrong?

Fußball 1. Bundesliga 1 FC Köln Werder Bremen Anthony Modeste 1 FC Köln R schießt das 4 2 Tor und jubelt (Imago/M. Volkmann)

Anthony Modeste carried Cologne last season

Missing Modeste

The simple answer is Anthony Modeste, the French striker whose 25 goals carried Cologne last season before moving to Chinese Super League team Tianjin Quanjian for 35 million euros this summer. 

Cologne invested half of that fee in Jhon Cordoba but the Colombian forward, who only scored five Bundesliga goals for Mainz last season, has so far failed to find the net for his new club – although he did demonstrate an eye for goal with a spectacular long-range effort against Arsenal in the Europa League. That striker's instinct is in there somewhere.

But there is not enough of a goal threat from the rest of the squad either. This should come as no surprise; last season, no other Cologne player hit double figures in terms of goals, Yuya Osako coming closest with seven while Milos Jojic scored four. Cologne's other summer signings are all young defenders who won't solve that particular problem and questions have been asked of sporting director Jörg Schmadtke's transfer policy.

Fußball Bundesliga - Mainz vs Hoffenheim Torjubel Uth (Reuters/R. Orlowski)

Cologne target Mark Uth has been on fire for Hoffenheim

Coach Peter Stöger is said to have wanted to sign Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger while Hoffenheim striker Mark Uth was also heavily linked with a move to his home city. Neither came to fruition and Uth has gone on to start the new season with six goals in eight games, including two against Liverpool in the Champions League qualification round.

Too much too soon?

Cologne's performances last season gave a false impression of where the club is really at as Peter Stöger's squad capitalized on poor campaigns from usual top six candidates Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Simultaneously - and perhaps consequently - a new marketing campaign has kicked into gear at the club. Under the slogan "Spürbar anders" (tangibly different), Cologne embarked on a four-day end-of-season trip to China, emulating attempts by Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to tap into new international markets.

Based in Germany's fourth-biggest city, Cologne are a hugely marketable club with a proud history and fanatical support, averaging attendances of over 40,000 despite five relegations in the last 20 years. The club is woven into the fabric of the carnival city and the mascot is a real, live goat. They're a marketer's dream in a tourist hot-spot.

China Asienreise des Fußball Bundesligisten 1 FC Köln Showtraining Tienxi Stadion (Imago)

Cologne's Leonardo Bittencourt on the club's Chinese tour

But Cologne only returned to the Bundesliga in 2014 and haven't managed to remain in the top flight for more than four seasons since the 1990s. Economic mismanagement left them in severe financial difficulty from which they have only just recovered thanks to the stabilizing efforts of Schmadtke on the pitch and Alexander Wehrle behind the scenes. Have they bitten off too much too soon?

Unwanted record

"We need to keep calm," said Stöger ahead of Sunday's trip to newly-promoted Hannover, who haven't conceded a goal at home since February. "There is a huge boulder in our way and we have to move it. But we know our qualities and we know we can all rely on each other."

A sixth straight defeat would see Cologne set a new record for the worst ever start to a Bundesliga season - in 1991, Fortuna Düsseldorf also lost their opening six games albeit with a better goal difference. Cologne would usually only be too happy to snatch a record from their bitter Rhinland rivals, but not this one. 

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