20th May 2017, Rhein Energie Stadion. Koln are hosting Mainz in front of a sold-out crowd, anxiously awaiting their sides final game of the Bundesliga campaign.
Win, and European football would be guaranteed for the first time since 1992. Tensions would have been rather calmer had they not blown a 2-0 first half lead the week before away at the BayArena to Bayer Leverkusen only to draw 2-2.
There was a five-way battle for three Europa League spots so any more slips ups would most likely be punished.
You would have thought if anybody was going to win the game for Koln, it would be Anthony Modeste, 25 league goals to his name which accounted over half of their goals after 33 games was quite some record for a striker who could be classed as a journeyman.
Only four other players had scored more than once throughout the whole season but it was German international Jonas Hector, and Japanese striker Yuya Osako who notched Koln’s goals as they easily brushed Mainz aside by two goals to nil to secure fifth place in the Bundesliga and direct passage into the Europa League group stages.
Cue pitch invasion…
The Billy Goats were already planning out their potential European adventures before a bombshell dropped not long after the season finale.
Player of the Season Modeste was suddenly all set for a big money move to China which eventually went through for a fee of around 35 million euros.
Koln spent half of that Jhon Cordoba from Mainz but with Artjoms Rudnevs also retiring, they looked feeble at the top end of the pitch going into the new campaign.
A 97th minute consolation from defender Frederik Sorensen in a 3-1 home defeat to Hamburg was the only goal they mustered in the first six games as they had just a single point to their name.
From matchday three they were bottom and have remained there all the way up until now. The elation and excellent season last year is now long forgotten as Koln look all but set for a drop into the second tier.
It took them 17 matches to eventually win a Bundesliga game, at home to Wolfsburg, which suddenly started a chain reaction of victories.
hey then won at home to Gladbach and away to Hamburg before drawing with Augsburg. But successive defeats to Dortmund and Frankfurt halted that momentum.
They currently sit eight points from safety with just nine games to go. Impossible, surely?
Their disastrous European campaign has summed their season up too. Drawn with Arsenal, Red Star Belgrade and BATE Borisov, they would have definitely fancied their chances of going through.
Jhon Cordoba scored from the halfway line inside nine minutes at the Emirates but they went on to lose 3-1, and then lost at home to Red Star before also losing in Belarus, both 1-0, to leave themselves all but eliminated by October.
Wins over BATE and Arsenal back-to-back meant a win in Belgrade would see them through but Slavoljub Srnic’s goal sent Red Star into the last 32 at Koln’s expense.
Fifth to eighteenth in the space of months is quite some fall from grace, but it seems to be a recurring theme within the Bundesliga, a team has a brilliant season, often lose their key man, then find themselves embroiled in a relegation battle.
Last season, Wolfsburg had to beat Eintracht Braunschweig in a two-legged relegation playoff just to retain their Bundesliga status little more than 12 months since they were playing at the Bernabeu in a Champions League quarter-final.
They lost Kevin de Bruyne to Manchester City after finishing second in 201415, then the following season finished eighth, outside the European places still with a massive bulk of the squad that came runners-up, before finishing sixteenth and escaping relegation by the skin of their teeth.
They are heading straight back into the same direction this season, level on points with Mainz who currently occupy that infamous relegation playoff spot.
Since reaching consecutive UEFA Cup semi finals in 2009 and 2010, Hamburg have endured and absolutely rotten spell, it is scarcely believable how they are still in the top flight.
The relegation playoff has been their trusted friend over the last five years, bailing them out numerous times when they were seemingly on the brink.
Luca Waldschmidt’s goal in the 88th minute to beat Wolfsburg on the final day in 2016 has summed this period up, struggle all season and then rescue it right at the death.
Still the only Bundesliga ever-presents, they may not be able to claim that honour much longer, them and Koln are cut adrift at the bottom and even by Hamburg’s standards, this seems like too much of a tall order.
Relegation may not be the worst thing though, nothing has changed each year they have narrowly survived, so a major revamp and overhaul may do them some good for when they inevitably do return to the top flight, barring any 1860 Munich-esque horror show.
Stuttgart were league champions in 2007, fast forward ten years and you would have found them playing in the second tier.
Werder, who came second to Stuttgart that season, also went on to be UEFA Cup runners-up in 2009, but since have only finished in the top half of the Bundesliga once.
Players like Miroslav Klose, Mesut Ozil, Marko Arnautovic and Marko Marin leaving the club without being sufficiently replaced have cause years of underachievement from which they are struggling to recover from.
You feel as if Bayern Munich are the only team safe from relegation each season. In Jurgen Klopp’s last season at Dortmund, they were flirting with relegation midway through the season before eventually dragging themselves up the table.
Last season, Schalke, Gladbach and Leverkusen all had terrible campaigns and were also looking over their shoulders up until the final few games of the season.
Fifteen years ago it would have seemed unfathomable that teams like Hamburg and Werder would struggle so much and to see 1860 Munich in the fourth tier.
On the contrary though, teams like Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig have come from nowhere to be Champions League chasing sides in a short amount of time.
It can work both ways, and bubbles can certainly burst quickly in Germany, I just wouldn’t bank on Bayern making any away trips to Magdeburg or Heidenheim for a league game anytime soon…