Europa League: Cologne looking to fly German flag as new era begins
While Hertha Berlin and Hoffenheim are out of the Europa League, Cologne are looking abroad for some relief after a shocking Bundesliga start. Their clash with Red Star is the first match since Peter Stöger's departure.
Just as Peter Stöger's time in Cologne will be remembered fondly, so will his final match in charge in the Europa League, a competition he led the Billy Goats to against the odds.
But the parting gift of a 1-0 win over Arsenal on Matchday 5 will count for less than Stöger's track record, should Cologne – who appointed Armin Veh as general manager on Wednesday – fail to beat Red Star Belgrade and qualify for the knockout stages.
Caretaker-boss Stefan Ruthenbeck will take charge of the Bundesliga's bottom club for the first time on Thursday and the Cologne-native says he's already been impressed by the motivation of his players.
"We made it a point to emphasize that intensity will be important and that we have to set the tone in training," he said earlier in the week. "You could see that the players understand the situation. They trained with an edge. This pleases me."
As well as the lack of wins in the Bundesliga, injuries have been a major concern for Cologne this term – with the long term absences of Jonas Hector, Marcel Risse and several other players combining with the extra matches that come with playing in Europe to stretch a relatively thin squad to breaking point.
But there has been some good news in this respect, with Marco Höger and Dominique Heintz training alone on Monday as they near full fitness after more than a month out.
After a stunning Richmond Boakye strike settled the meeting of the sides in September, Cologne must win to progress. A 1,500-kilometer (940 miles) trip to Belgrade may not be the ideal preparation for a critical relegation clash with Freiburg on Sunday but, right now, Cologne are a club that will take wins wherever they find them.
Hertha and Hoffenheim with little to play for
For Germany's other two Europa League representatives, Hertha Berlin and Hoffenheim, the focus is now firmly on domestic matters after both were eliminated last time out.
For Julian Nagelsmann's men, it was the second European exit of the season, after Liverpool ended their Champions League hopes in the qualifiying playoffs. An impressive, and somewhat unexpected, 4-0 win over RB Leipzig at the weekend has put Hoffenheim right back in the European picture in Germany but a record of one win from seven European fixtures is a black mark on the record of one of Europe's best-regarded young coaches.
While a home win over Ludogrets won't convince the doubters, it is a fixture that matters to the visitors, who are in pole position to qualify in second. It may also provide a chance for some of Hoffenheim's fringe players to impress their boss.
The same is true for Hertha Berlin, who welcome European surprise package Ostersund. The Swedish side has risen through the leagues in recent years, while picking up the Swedish Cup under English coach Graham Potter. They eliminated Turkish giants Galatasaray in the qualifying rounds and have sealed qualification from Group J with a game to spare.
Hertha will be without Davie Selke, who scored their only goal in the loss to Frankfurt on Sunday, Marvin Plattenhardt and Sebastian Langkamp who will all stay at home to work on minor injuries in the gym.