The stage was set for Holstein Kiel. They took a precious 1-0 home from Wednesday’s first leg against 1. FC Köln, and in the blazing sunshine of the Holstein-Stadion they had the backing of over 2,000 fans. A thoroughly deserved first promotion to the Bundesliga was on the brink.
In scenes similar to their destruction against Borussia Dortmund though, it all fell apart in the first 15 minutes – one of the most manic quarter of an hour’s football imaginable that only the recent Women’s Champions League final could come close to.
Jonas Hector headed Köln in front on the day, level on aggregate. Kiel went straight down the other end and Lee Jae-sung headed in after Finn Porath’s shot was saved by Timo Horn.
At the back though, they were a mess. Sebastian Andersson, back in for the Billy Goats, headed in a Florian Kainz cross, with less than six minutes still on the clock. Then the worse of the lot from a Kiel perspective – Ioannis Gelios couldn’t save another Andersson header, only rebounding it off Fabian Reese and in.
3-1 down on the day. 3-2 down on aggregate. Two goals needed because of Köln’s away goal. Their leading man, Janni Serra, missing to a thigh problem. Wariness in the legs from 11 games in 35 days. From that promising starting position, all the cards were now against the Storks.
That was even more the case when Rafael Czichos – their former captain, no less – scored a blinder to end all hopes of a comeback, even before the break. The second half was merely a procession, and if not for Gelios it could have been even worse. Ellyes Skhiri put the icing on a 5-1 win.
Yet again, the ‘Relegation’ play-off proves a step too far for the 2. Bundesliga side. Since it was reintroduced, only Nürnberg in 2009 and Fortuna Düsseldorf in 2012 have been able to overcome the Bundesliga side put in front of them. Like those, Kiel had taken a lead into the second leg, but even that wasn’t enough.
The Bundesliga team invariably has more individual quality, more tactical nous. Kiel themselves knew how this can work against teams like them from when they faced Wolfsburg in 2018.
For 2. Bundesliga fans, this is further fuel to the fire that the play-off is unfair and should be abolished and three up, three down should return. This game may not have done that side of the argument too many favours though.
The first 15 minutes were pure theatre, as much as an anomaly as that was, whilst the Bundesliga side winning, again, suggests the 2. Bundesliga team wasn’t good enough to go up anyway.
Is that fair on Kiel though? They have played a superb season, and have possibly only been undone by the impact of going into quarantine twice in the final couple of months of the season. Köln, meanwhile, have been mediocrity defined in the Bundesliga. The top flight team is always likely to be better resourced in these games, a matter of simple economics.
They now get another chance, and with a young team and the all-out attacking football that Steffen Baumgart will bring. It’s possible they could make the most of it, as teams like Borussia Mönchengladbach and Eintracht Frankfurt have in the past, or they could fail to learn their lesson like Hamburg or Werder Bremen.
If the latter ends up being the case, is it really right that is them, and not Kiel, who play in the Bundesliga next season? They would certainly be better placed to stay up then Kiel. But unless your loyalty lies with the Billy Goats – I’ll admit I’ve had a soft spot for them in the past – it just make the Bundesliga more boring when mediocre sides get a reprieve.
Ole Werner’s side deserved a crack at the Bundesliga, even if they blew the chances they had. Now Lee will go, Serra will go, and it’ll be incredibly hard for them to push again for promotion, especially with the two teams coming down. And even if this is the way it is, it still feels unfair.