Stale Solbakken Era In Full Swing At Cologne

Players of Koeln celebrate after the Bundesliga match between 1. FC Koeln and 1899 Hoffenheim at RheinEnergieStadion (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The Billy Goats have had an inconsistent start to the Bundesliga and their new coach could be the man to take them into Europe.

Norwegian coach Stale Solbakken was one of Europe's most sought after coaches at the end of last season following an impressive stint at FC Copenhagen where he won five league championships and reached the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.

Historically, Cologne are one of the biggest sides in Germany and in their prime during the 60s and 70s, they secured three league titles and finished second on another four occasions. However, the last decade or so has been very turbulent for the Billy Goats.

From 2001 to 2008, the club was effectively yo-yoing between the Bundesliga and the second division with four spells in 2.Bundesliga across the last ten years.

It was hope the appointment of Solbakken would spell some successful times for Cologne but the opening few weeks of the season did not go according to plan for Solbakken and sporting director Volke Finke.

On the first weekend of the new season, Cologne went down 3-0 at home to Felix Magath's Wolfsburg and then took a severe hammering at the hands of Schalke at the Veltins Arena.

Despite picking up a point against FC Kaiserslutern, they remained bottom of the Bundesliga and the knives were already out for the Norwegian as he was widely-tipped to be the first coach to face the axe.

At the end of August, Cologne were involved in what some claimed as the battle of the two under pressure coaches in the Bundesliga - Michael Oenning and Stale Solbakken. The latter came out on top at the Imtech Arena with Cologne scoring a late winner through Kevin McKenna to beat Hamburg 4-3 on matchday four.

The victory in Hamburg seemed to be the catalyst for a change in form for Cologne and it has propelled them up into mid-table.

The international break possibly came at the wrong time for Cologne and they lost at the Rhein-Energie-Stadion to FC Nurnberg in a match which could have gone either way with the visitors scoring from two penalty kicks within just a few minutes.

Regardless of how this season pans out for Cologne, there is one match in September which will be remembered fondly by their supporters. Against the odds, Solbakken's men produced a fantastic performance against rivals Bayer Leverkusen in the Rhinerderby and beat last year's runners up 4-1 on their own patch.

The Norwegian coach described folk as "crazy" if they tipped the Billy Goats to win on their rivals home patch and an inspired performance from Lukas Podolski, including two goals, ripped Leverkusen to shreds.

Cologne secured a comfortable 2-0 win over one of the early high-flyers Hoffenheim last weekend but it was followed up by a typically Cologne performance on Saturday with Hertha Berlin scoring three times in the first half, which meant they dropped down into 12th.

Perhaps one of the best decisions Solbakken made in the first month of his new job was to remove the captaincy from Lukas Podolski. Since the start of September we have seen an almost transformed player as he looks to establish a partnership with Milovoje Novakovic.

The 26-year-old produced a scintillating performance against Leverkusen with two goals and one assist at the BayArena. Podolski netted his fourth goal of the season on Sunday against Hoffenheim and it would appear the German international may be rekindling the form which made him one of the best talents in Europe.

In the last four weeks, there has been such a buzz around the city and it would appear Solbakken has finally moulded together his strongest starting eleven.

An integral part of their 10th-place finish last season was the prolific partnership between Podolski and Novakovic in attack. Between them, they netted 30 of Cologne's 47 goals in the Bundesliga and they have six so far this campaign.

But it is not just Novakovic and Podolski excelling for the Billy Goats. The likes of Croatian midfielder Mato Jajalo, Polish winger Slawomir Peszko and Moroccan Adil Chihi provide plenty of creativity and energy in Solbakken's 4-2-3-1 system.

23-year-old Jajalo partners Sascha Reither in the middle of the park and the former Wolfsburg man has been one of the most astute signings of the close season at just £2m. Reither brings vast experience to the Cologne team having played 28 times in Wolfsburg's championship-winning campaign in 2009. Jajalo, on the other hand, adds another attacking option to the side and after making his move from Siena permanent this summer, he has started well with two goals to his name.

The vast majority of Cologne's play comes down the left-hand side with Slawomir Peszko and the effective movement of Podolski into the channel between the opposition right-back and central defender. Against Hamburg four weeks ago, two of their goals were created from the left-hand side and against Leverkusen, each move leading up to their four goals came from the left-side. Add to that, both goals from Jajalo and Podolski last Sunday against Hoffenheim.

With the attacking half of the team picking itself almost, Solbakken has been forced to chop and change throughout the season to find his strongest backline. Against Hoffenheim, Cologne were without three defenders - Miso Brecko, Ammar Jemal and Pedro Geromel - as well as experienced defensive midfielder Petit.

After a shaky start to the season, Cologne are on the up following some terrific results in the Bundesliga but the loss against Hertha makes the clashes with Hannover and Dortmund after the international break very important, with just five points separating eight teams.

Solbakken's side could break their way in to the top-half of the table ahead of some formidable names in German football if they can get back to winning ways.

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