Europa Conference League
1 - 2
(1 - 2)
FC Köln
F. Dietz (14), J. Chabot (20)
B. Zivzivadze (32), P. Dárdai (40)
By Peter Weis@PeterVicey

Köln's European dream in peril following upset loss

Germany's anointed UEFA Europa Conference League's representatives find their hopes of making the group stages of the club competition imperiled after suffering an upset loss at home on Thursday night. 

Reduced to ten-men via a Julian Chabot red in the 20th, Steffen Baumgart's Geißböcke were ultimately sunk by a goal from former Hertha Academy man Palko Dardai. 

Now down 1-2 on aggregate, Köln must travel to Hungary next week and bring back a two-goal win should they wish to qualify for the competition. 
A 44,000-strong crowd decked out all in red welcomed European football back to Köln's RheinEnergieStadion on Thursday evening for the first time since their club's appearance in the 2017/18 Europa League. Unfortunately for the cathedral city supporters, an early red card saw their reduced side drop and UEFA Europa Conference League playoff leg that they were widely expected to win. The Domstädter fell to visiting Fehervar FC 1-2.

Köln trainer Steffen Baumgart - despite insisting that he had no plans to rotate merely for the sake of resting players - did end up making three changes to the XI that drew Leipzig last weekend. The back-four began with three new players. Benno Schmitz took over for Kingsley Ehizibue at right-back. Julian Chabot started over Luca Kilian alongside Timo Hübers in central defense. Kristian Pedersen worked the left fullback position while captain Jonas Hector moved into midfield to replace Eric Martel.

Fehervar FC - a Hungarian club whom some may recall recently traded under different names such as Videoton SC/FC or MOL Vidi - rolled into the cathedral city with plenty of German names in tow. The club's trainer Michael Borris, after a pro-am career in Germany's lower footballing divisions, first got into coaching with an internship under Schalke trainer Felix Magath a decade ago. Former Hertha trainer Pal Dardai's eldest son Palko began in the staring XI. Albstadt native and ex-Hoffenheim man Marcel Heister made the bench.

The match began as all surely expected, with the German heavy favorites dominating possession and applying plenty of pressure. After a full 15 minutes of uninterrupted attacks, Florian Dietz finally gave the hosts a much deserved lead. Dejan Ljubicic unlocked the Geißböcke lead striker near the halfway line. Dietz had little trouble shaking off two defenders and finishing into the corner as soon as he entered the penalty area. At the quarter-of-an-hour mark, all was going according to plan.

Six minutes after the opening goal, however, the script was unexpectedly flipped. Chabot took Dardai down in the penalty area in the 20th. Portuguese match official Tiago Bruno Lopes Martins ruled the challenge a clear denial of a goal-scoring-opportunity. Chabot was thus sent off on a straight red. The shorthanded hosts coped by moving Hector back to the left-back role while Pedersen slid into central defense. The guests grew bolder, though it did take some time for them the exploit the extra space.

Some ten minutes after Chabot's dismissal, Dardai was able to get a couple chances off near the half-hour-mark. In the 32nd, Fehervar FC striker Budu Zivzivadze polished off a Loic Nego cross to equalize. Zivzivadze did well to best Hübner's in the crucial aerial duel. The hosts attempted to punch back and regain the lead, taking more risks going forward over the ensuing eight minutes.

The gambit backfired and, five minutes before it was time to head in the tunnel, the Hungarians had the lead. Zivzivadze had far too much space in the center of the park in the 40th. The Fehervar striker practically walked into the penalty area before laying off for Dardai. The Berlin native and former Hertha academy man furnished a ruthless finish that bulged the top of the net.

A clearly shellshocked and disoriented Köln had difficulty retaining their shape as the half drew to a close. Baumgart introduced Kilian for Pedersen at the break to at the very least provide his team with two natural center backs. Clearly opted for the conservative approach, Borris' men shelled up in a back-six and employed selective pressing to thwart Kölner approach play.

As was the case against Leipzig in their last league match, the Effzeh might have been a tad too predictable in trying to cycle through with Hector on the left. The hosts didn't have much to offer from open play, though a couple of interesting set-piece designs did see them get closer to the goal. Hector was finally able to generate a good chance in the 62nd, with the freshly-subbed on Maina sending his quality cross just wide.

Köln continued to make light pinpricks via free-kicks and Hector again attempted to set Maina up in the 70th. Fehervar keeper Daniel Kovacs was able to deflect Maina's effort off the post with his foot. Hector himself shot wide in the 77th. Baumgart threw on attackers Sargis Adamyan, Steffen Tigges, and Matias Olesen on as part of a triple change in the final quarter-of-an-hour, yet the trio barely saw a collective touch. Most of the attacks continued to run through Hector and Maina, who were both well defended.

The second-leg of this third-qualifying-round playoff will take place next Thursday in Székesfehérvár. One piece of bright news for the German club is that the away-goals-rule is not being used in this competition. A two-goal-win will thus suffice to see the Geißböcke through.

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