Cologne defender Dominic Maroh had tears in his eyes after the team defeated Bayer Leverkusen in the Rhine derby before the international break.
The emotion of a long, challenging season had finally reached the surface, prompted by the thought that a “miracle” escape from Bundesliga relegation was suddenly on.
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Maroh played a big part in his first start since November, winning challenges, clearing the ball and working diligently at the back against Leverkusen as Cologne’s fifth win in 27 games dragged the club off the bottom of the table for the first time since August.
“The corpse is still alive,” midfielder Leonardo Bittencourt said after the 2-0 victory, a win made sweeter as rivals Hamburger SV, Mainz, Wolfsburg and Freiburg all lost.
Ahead of its visit to Hoffenheim on Saturday, Cologne is five points adrift of the relegation playoff place with seven games remaining.
“It’s absolutely positive we’re no longer last,” coach Stefan Ruthenbeck said. “It’s a sign we’re still alive and allows us to keep dreaming of a miracle.”
It has been a remarkable turnaround. Cologne’s tally of two points from the opening 13 games was worse than Tasmania Berlin’s in 1965-66, the club that has had the worst campaign since the Bundesliga was formed in 1963.
Cologne was given little hope of survival when it went winless for 16 games at the start, losing 13 times.
Former coach Peter Stoeger and managing director Joerg Schmadtke both left. They joined when Cologne was in the second division in 2013, led the team to promotion a year later and then oversaw steady top-flight progress to finish 12th, ninth and fifth.
Cologne’s Europa League campaign has placed an additional burden on the squad while the sale of last season’s top-scorer Anthony Modeste was another blow.
But Ruthenbeck has sparked a big improvement, helped by the January signings of forward Simon Terodde and French midfielder Vincent Koziello. Terodde has scored five goals in nine games since his move from Stuttgart while the 22-year-old Koziello is now an automatic starter following his switch from Nice.
Cologne hasn’t always got the results its performances deserved and the team has also been on the wrong side of some borderline refereeing decisions.
Claudio Pizarro had a winning-goal ruled out in injury time against Hannover. Against Stuttgart earlier in the season, the side also had a late penalty denied before its opponents scored a stoppage-time winner.
Cologne’s fate is in its own hands. After meeting Hoffenheim, the side hosts third-from-bottom Mainz and its last game is against fourth-from-bottom Wolfsburg.
“It’s all the same against who, all the same where, whether away or in Cologne – we have to get points,” midfielder Marco Hoeger said.
Goalkeeper Timo Horn agreed.
“We have kept our chances alive. We have the momentum,” said Horn. “There’s a great buzz around us (from the fans) and that naturally reaches the team.
“But we’re still aware there’s a danger it can quickly go the other way. The whole season has been one of up and down feelings but the belief in the miracle is huge.”