Our Bundesliga correspondent Archie Rhind-Tutt reports back from the Rhine derby, where Bayer Leverkusen centre-back Jonathan Tah was again on form in a 2-0 victory over Cologne…
England has them. So too do Spain and Italy. Yet in the German top flight, there isn’t a single derby between two teams from the same city.
The last one took place in February 2011 when St. Pauli, who were relegated later that season, snatched a 1-0 win away to Hamburg. Before that you have to go all the way back to 2004, when Bayern Munich beat 1860 Munich at the Olympiastadion. The next best thing the Bundesliga can offer is Cologne against Bayer Leverkusen. Separated by 12 miles and the river Rhine, they are the two closest clubs in the top flight – and you could tell by the atmosphere at the RheinEnergieStadion on Sunday.
It’s been 20 years since Cologne finished above Leverkusen but that doesn’t mean Leverkusen fans take this game for granted. On Saturday afternoon, BILD reported that around 300 of them turned up at training, chanting and letting off flares, to remind the team of just how important Sunday’s encounter was.
Judging by what Jonathan Tah told The Set Pieces, it worked as Leverkusen ran out 2-0 victors.
“It gives you some extra energy for the game and we wanted to give it back,” said the Leverkusen centre-back after he’d carefully removed his chunky gold headphones.
The 20-year-old should be allowed a bit of showing off. This is the first campaign where he’s played consistently in the Bundesliga and he’s been exceptional. Kicker magazine ranks him as the fourth best defender in the division, which underlines his enormous potential.
The composure of the six-foot-three centre-back stood out on Sunday, as did his searing pace. In February, Sport Bild listed Tah as one of the quickest defenders in the division, clocking a rapid top speed of 21 miles per hour.
Cologne also discovered on Sunday that the youngster isn’t bad with the ball, too. Just five seconds after his pass found Hakan Calhanoglu in the 39th minute, the home side were behind.
Calhanoglu flicked the ball on to Karim Bellarabi, who in turn played in Julian Brandt, the youngest player on the pitch at 19 years old.
Brandt showed that, like Tah, he has a remarkable amount of composure for someone so young, volleying the away side into the lead. That was in front of Cologne’s colourful and boisterous Südkurve, which went quiet for the first time during the afternoon.
It contrasted neatly with the almighty din they created less than an hour before as they produced a colourful choreography showing both their love for the club and their disdain for the German football authorities. The Cologne Ultras do not care much for the idea of playing games on a Monday, but it’s fair to say that previous misdemeanours with flares and firecrackers makes them no angels either.
“The football fan as the enemy of the state”, read the choreo occupying the lower tier before it transitioned into a Braveheart inspired slogan aimed at the authorities: “You may take games from us but you’ll never take our pride, conviction and passion for what we love.”
Making a choreo of such magnitude might suggest Cologne fans see Leverkusen as a serious rival. That isn’t quite the case, though, according to local journalist Marc Mertensacker, who attends nearly every Cologne game and training session.
“The Cologne fans say Leverkusen’s not really a club,” he told The Set Pieces.
“It’s some kind of an artificial club that was created by Bayer, the pharmaceutical [company]. That’s the reason why many, many Cologne fans say: ‘We’re not talking about a derby here. There’s no tradition there.’ So the only derby for Cologne fans is against Gladbach.”
Despite that, Mertensacker says that Cologne envy Leverkusen because they have so much money and have used it so well for years. On the other hand, Leverkusen lacks the international reputation Cologne has from being a major city.
“It [Leverkusen] is like Hoffenheim or Wolfsburg. It’s a small city that is probably known for the football club but that’s it.”
Frequently qualifying for the Champions League has helped to grow Leverkusen’s reputation abroad – as has their second goalscorer on Sunday. Mexican superstar Javier Hernandez has excelled since moving from Manchester United last summer and his 25th goal in all competitions for Leverkusen came just a few minutes after Brandt’s opener. It sealed a fourth league win in a row and moved the club into the top four with five games remaining.
Over on the touchline stood Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt. The former mechanic was easy to spot in his dark blue suit and white trainers. But whilst his colour coordination was dubious, you can’t question his methods. Certainly not in the eyes of Tah, who told The Set Pieces what makes Schmidt special for him: “He does video analysis with you individually. Also, if you have private problems, you can go talk to him. That’s what’s so good about him. You’re not scared to go to the coach. You know you can always talk to him.”
Tah has also been helped by Hernandez too, who has shared his wealth of experience with the squad after spending last year on loan at Real Madrid. “If I do something wrong, he comes and tells me what I can do better because he knows what is difficult for a striker,” said the young defender.
The lessons from Schmidt and Hernandez have certainly helped Tah, who made his Germany debut in the 3-2 loss to England, and his performance in the derby saw him labelled a “tackle monster” by local tabloid Express.
"Now it counts, Effzeh!" bellows Express after Köln's derby defeat along with a good old fashioned "Achtung!". pic.twitter.com/QGFhVlDrQ7
— Archie Rhind-Tutt (@archiert1) April 11, 2016
The outlook for Cologne is a little scarier, especially after playmaker Leonardo Bittencourt’s red card in injury time, with the scant consolation that Leverkusen’s Wendell was also sent off. Peter Stöger’s side have only won twice in 2016 and both of those wins were against the bottom two. Still, they are 11th and are six points off the relegation playoff spot so should survive another season.
Leverkusen will confirm a 20th consecutive finish above their rivals with a win next weekend against Eintracht Frankfurt, emphasising that while there are only 12 miles between the two clubs, there’s a considerable gap on the pitch.
Cologne do have two Bundesliga titles to their name, something Leverkusen lack, but the truth is that even if their fans pretend not to care, Cologne’s neighbours are just simply better than them right now – and on Sunday it showed.