There was only one way to celebrate. As they began to bask in a surprise derby victory at Borussia-Park, the plan of Cologne’s players quickly clicked into gear. The players in red scampered to the north-west corner of the ground where the away support would usually be penned in, and Salih Özcan uprooted the corner flag before popping a shirt on it and waving it in the air above his jubilant teammates.
The ribbing wasn’t lost on Borussia Mönchengladbach’s players. This has been Marcus Thuram’s victory routine since he arrived from France, normally flying his flag in front of the fans in the ground’s Südtribune. It goes on the road, too. When Gladbach and Cologne last faced each other in the first fixture at the start of October, Thuram flew his makeshift flag for the third time in a row against their regional rivals, with Stefan Lainer’s shirt flapping in the breeze in front of the empty away section. With just 300 supporters allowed into the Rhein-Energie Stadion that day as a last-minute token gesture following limited safety approval, you could hear the individual insults yelled at the French forward by fed-up Effzeh fans.
This time the boot was on the other foot. Özcan didn’t need to think too hard about whose shirt should top the flagpole, either. The No 20 of Elvis Rexhbecaj flew through the sky, as it deserved to after the on-loan midfielder’s two goals surprisingly won the game for Markus Gisdol’s men. “I think the whole of Cologne is celebrating at home right now,” the smiling 23-year-old said. By the time the team bus made it back to the club’s base at Geißbockheim a few had snuck out of the house, welcoming their players home in a sea of socially distanced pyro.
This was at least a glimmer of celebration at the start of a period in which the city would usually wildly celebrate Karneval, but which will see the event move online and a ban on the sale of alcohol introduced for a week to dampen the temptation of any clandestine festivities. The homecoming felt like an important moment of union for this club, and the city of Cologne that feels its fortunes so acutely, to enjoy after a challenging week, and a tough year.
“We’ve been in crisis mode for a long time,” the sporting director, Horst Heldt, said. Yet the days building up to the derby should have been good, after the 3-1 win against Arminia Bielefeld gave Gisdol’s side some breathing space at the bottom (and avoiding relegation has been “the only target” all season, according to the coach).
Instead, it turned out very differently for a club that live through a prism of drama. It was a week in which Effzeh blew a two-goal lead to exit the DfB Pokal to second-tier opposition, rescinded the appointment of a new head of communications following a fan petition and in which a player had to apologise for insulting fans in a leaked video. The defeat against mid-table Bundesliga 2 side Jahn Regensburg was hard to take, with new signing Emmanuel Dennis opening the scoring as Cologne raced to an early 2-0 lead. The eventual loss on penalties deprived the club of a winnable quarter-final tie with Werder Bremen, it turned out in Sunday evening’s draw, and though a goal by Benno Schmitz was controversially disallowed at 2-1 Gisdol admitted “we shouldn’t have let it get that far today”.
Then came the double-barrelled PR shot to the foot. First it was announced the long-awaited new communications chief, Fritz Esser, would not be taking charge on 1 May (or at all) after historic tweets criticising Cologne fans and backing harsher curbs on immigration were uncovered, causing thousands of fans to protest led by high-profile figures including Lukas Podolski and the SPD leader Norbert Walter-Borjans.
Then, on the departure from Geißbockheim before the derby, some footage was filmed clearly showing midfielder Dominick Drexler referring to fans waving the team farewell as “idiots”, with the video later circulating on social media. “If you call your own fans idiots, you don’t deserve the shirt,” Podolski later commented. Drexler, a local boy from neighbouring Bonn, has been contrite and secretly met a group of fans after Saturday’s win. The initial impressions are they are minded to be forgiving to a player with a previously impeccable record, with the post-win mood helping.
So Drexler probably owes Rexhbecaj a drink at some point once that ban is lifted. He struck first at Gladbach in the opening two minutes when he strode through the centre to score and, after Florian Neuhaus had equalised, Rexhbecaj then scored an even better winner – pickpocketing Lainer, the hero of the season’s first derby, and stroking a difficult finish past Yann Sommer from an angle with an apparently effortless sweep of his dreamy left foot.
Gisdol thought Rexhbecaj was just the man to seize the moment. “From the first moment on,” the coach said, “I had the feeling that he is actually from Cologne, that he has completely taken on board what we’re about. You don’t always have that with loan players.” That grasp of feeling and tradition matters so much, especially in a week such as this. Whether Cologne can find the money to make Rexhbecaj’s move from Wolfsburg permanent remains to be seen but looking too far into the future doesn’t pay right now. Karneval is about enjoying the moment and Effzeh fans are at least having the limited opportunity to do that.
• In contrast to Cologne, Bayern Munich always have a plan. Their Friday night trip to Hertha kicked off an hour early to allow a swift departure to the Club World Cup in Qatar after Covid testing, but after Kingsley Coman’s winner they narrowly missed the takeover window and incurred a seven-hour delay, much to Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s annoyance.
• Dortmund’s eighth defeat of the season really rang the alarm bells louder than ever. Losing against their bunnies Freiburg (who BVB had previously been unbeaten against in 17) was the latest indignity, with a scoring cameo for the 16-year-old Yousouffa Moukoko not enough to prevent a defeat that leaves them four points adrift of the top four after the on-fire Eintracht Frankfurt’s Sunday win at Hoffenheim. Edin Terzić gave the team a few home truths at the club’s Brackel training ground on Sunday but sales on top of the expected exit of Jadon Sancho may be required if BVB miss out on the Champions League.
• It was a tough start at Schalke for Shkodran Mustafi – he was in quarantine until Friday and then straight into the XI against Leipzig without a single training session, but that’s the level of desperation for Christian Gross and his team at the moment. Mustafi got some flak for the marking on Nordi Mukiele’s opener but it wasn’t the difference. The two sides were poles apart and look increasingly like being a division apart next season.
• A good start for another Premier League ex in Leverkusen, though, with Demarai Gray’s late cameo yielding a stylish goal to cap his new team’s impressive 5-2 demolition of Stuttgart.