For the Billy Goats, it’s about avoiding the seventh relegation from the top–flight. For the Storks, the goal is to become the 57th club to play in the Bundesliga. But both have hardly had time to catch their breath after the final day of their respective regular seasons.
Köln began Matchday 34 in an automatic relegation position in the Bundesliga, but a Sebastiaan Bornauw goal in the 86th minute of their clash with Schalke 04 – coupled with Bremen’s 4–2 defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach –saw the two–time Bundesliga champions leapfrog and condemn the four–time winners at the death.
For coach Friedhelm Funkel, who was only brought back to the club for the final six games to replace Markus Gisdol, making the play–off is a “reward for how hard we had to work” after picking up 10 points from those last six outings.
While Köln is on a high after their last–minute escape, Kiel have to pick themselves up after dropping out of the top two of Bundesliga 2 on the final day. Back–to–back 3–2 defeats to Karlsruher SC and then SV Darmstadt 98 saw Ole Werner’s team pipped on the line by SpVgg Greuther Fürth. The 10–man Cloverleaves twice came from behind against Fortuna Düsseldorf to climb into second and join VfL Bochum 1848 back in the Bundesliga next season.
“For us, it’ll be about picking ourselves back up, regaining our composure and fighting with everything we’ve got to make the impossible still possible via this route,” demanded Holstein coach Werner, who, at 33, is the youngest coach across the top three divisions of German football. His opposite number Funkel is the second oldest at 67.
Still, it’s somewhat remarkable that the Storks have made it this far given the hugely congested fixture list that has seen them play nine competitive matches since 24 April, even before the two play–off legs. The second division side even knocked treble winners FC Bayern München out of the DFB Cup also made it to the semi–finals to take on Borussia Dortmund.
However, Kiel are no strangers to post–season drama. This is the third time the 1912 German champions have contested a play–off for promotion. They first did so in 2015 trying to get into Bundesliga 2, but a last–second goal from TSV 1860 München saw them beaten 2–1.
They again failed in 2018, this time with a place in the Bundesliga on the line, losing 4–1 on aggregate to VfL Wolfsburg. Will it be third time lucky? By contrast, Köln have never before contested the play–off between Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2, with this now the 23rd edition and 13th since its re–introduction in 2009.
History is also on the side of the Bundesliga clubs, who have retained their top–flight status in 16 of the 22 play–offs to date. That includes seven of the last eight years.In fact, no Bundesliga 2 team has even won a game in the play–off since 2012. The last to do so was Düsseldorf away at Hertha Berlin (2–1), since which there have been nine draws and eight Bundesliga victories –and only one promotion.
The last two years, though, have been tight. All four games have been drawn and it’s come down to away goals. One team has a lot to lose, the other a lot to gain when Köln host Kiel at the RheinEnergieStadion for the first leg on Wednesday (6.30 pm CEST). The decisive return fixture at the Holstein–Stadion then quickly follows on Saturday (6 pm CEST). There’s no time to wait with a place in the 2021–22 Bundesliga on the line.