Who will reign supreme at IEM Cologne? BLIX's top-three favorites for the title

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With the IEM Cologne playoffs starting on Friday, BLIX goes over the main candidates who could lift the coveted trophy for the last time in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s history.

#3: ENCE

The international quintet representing ENCE is aiming to establish itself as a true contender, recovering from a disappointing first half of the year with a single top four LAN placement to take the crown at IEM Dallas thanks to an exceptional Alvaro “SunPayus” Garcia. The team didn’t excel in their Cologne debut, having to save five match points against 9INE to take the series 2-1 and overcoming Fnatic in two contested maps. An important sign came as ENCE grew into the event, finishing their group stage off with a narrow 2-1 win over Heroic and earning a semi-final spot.

Even with their struggles, ENCE have enjoyed a strong period of form from both SunPayus, the Spanish sniper developing into a tier-one threat on both sides, and Guy “NertZ” Iluz. The Israeli rifler has become an essential part of Marco “Snappi” Pfeiffer’s system, pressuring the opposition with aggressive CT side plays and acting as the X-factor in his team’s T sides through lurks and clutches. The fact that ENCE can take down a world-best contender even without Pavle “Maden” Bošković and Paweł “dycha” Dycha playing at their peak is undoubtedly scary.

This is, however, also where ENCE’s limitations come into play. While SunPayus and NertZ have excelled in 2023, dycha still hasn’t fully recovered from his drop in form following the BLAST Paris Major— he was the team’s lowest rated player at IEM Dallas. Maden, on the other hand, is still plagued by inconsistency, with his best performances of the year leading to ENCE’s most convincing runs, but his entry-fragging style does not require him to always secure the opening for his team to win rounds. If both can take another step forward in the playoffs, it will certainly help ENCE fix their CT side struggles.

Read More: SunPayus: "I don't think we are close to our peak"

Still, ENCE have a fairly difficult path to the title, facing the winner of Cloud9 - Vitality in their semifinal. Both teams will be tough tests for the international squad, as they can both produce superior firepower to ENCE on both the offensive and defensive side. Vitality, in particular, would be problematic, as the French organization has showcased composed and effective T sides during the event, unlike Snappi’s side defense. A final against G2 would mean ENCE come in as underdogs, but the chance of an Astralis upset run or Heroic coming back for revenge would give them more opportunities.

While far from the overwhelming favorites, ENCE have shown significant growth over the last few events, and their varied stratbook could help them overcome unfavorable odds. What’s certain is that even an elite NertZ is not enough to compete with teams who field four players (or even five, in Cloud9’s case) who can produce game-winning performances on their own. If dycha or Madenn step up and Snappi continues to call at a high level, the sky is the ceiling.

#2: Vitality

The reigning Major champions arrived in Germany aiming to hit the ground running with new recruit Shahar “flameZ” Shushan, who came into the French organization to replace Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen. The team exceeded all expectations set for them at Cologne, overcoming OG in their opening matchup (2-0) before dominating a MOUZ side that had looked like a real contender only leaving nine rounds on the board. The French-Danish-Israeli mixture then hit their only roadblock in G2, losing 1-2 to a convincing performance from Ilya “m0nesy” Osipov.

Even with this loss, Vitality showcased the full extent of their firepower in their three matches, with flameZ slotting into dupreeh’s roles perfectly and looking like a natural fit even on the offensive side. It’s clear that Dan “apEX” Madesclaire and coach Danny “zonic” Sorensen have worked thoroughly to integrate the young Israeli rifler, and that has paid dividends so far. Vitality’s new space creator is also working exceptionally well in tandem with Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut on the T side, with the French sniper recording the highest offensive rating in the event so far.

Spinx’s contribution will be vital for Vitality’s title hopes (Image Credits: ESL | Adela Sznajder) Spinx’s contribution will be vital for Vitality’s title hopes (Image Credits: ESL | Adela Sznajder)

Adding to the good signs, Emil “Magisk” Reif is having his second-best LAN event of 2023, contributing to the team’s strong offensive halves especially in the game against OG. The only disappointment so far has been Lotan “Spinx” Giladi, whose contribution was not needed in Vitality’s first two matches but sorely missed in the decider against G2. The Israeli rifler was extremely effective as an aggressive presence on the CT side, especially on the secondary AWP, but failed to make a difference on his T side lurks.

However, due to their loss against G2, Vitality have the hardest path to the final of any team, which is why they fall to the #2 spot on our list. The French organization will debut in the quarter-finals against the Cloud9 superteam, now fielding Sergey “Ax1le” Rykhtorov over stand-in Timur “buster” Tulepov. While we don’t know the full extent of Cloud9’s preparation for the event, it’s clear Vitality will need all its riflers to perform at the highest level to overcome the Russians. A semi-final berth against an in-form ENCE would await them next, with a potential final rematch against G2 on the horizon.

Ultimately, Vitality still has the tactical depth and firepower needed to make a run for the title, but the quality of the opposition will mean apEX’s calling has to be near-perfect. Furthermore, if Spinx's lack of impact against G2 was nothing more than an off-day, the upper side of the bracket will have a big problem on their hands.

#1: G2

G2 came into Cologne after a disappointing first half of the year which saw them reach the highest highs at IEM Katowice and the lowest of lows at the BLAST Paris Major. Now, Rasmus “HooXi” Nielsen’s side produced a spectacular group stage performance, showing flashes of dominance. The quintet started with a 2-1 win over a resurgent Astralis side, recovering from a map and 12-8 down before dismantling FaZe in the most anticipated match of the first week. Finally, m0nesy and Nikola “NiKo” Kovač helped G2 record a convincing 2-1 win over Vitality to secure a semi-final spot.

G2 are one of the scariest teams in the world when firing on all cylinders, and they have shown this in Cologne thanks to an inspired Nemanja “huNter-” Kovač. The Bosnian rifler is having his second-best event of the year, finally becoming the team’s third star after Justin “jks” Savage’s exceptional start to the year. The Australian rifler is himself contributing at a higher rate than previous outings, especially on the defensive side, while m0nesy and NiKo dominate the opposition. While the young Russian’s inconsistency is a source of potential upsets, his peaks are so high few snipers in the world can match them.

More than anything, stability is apparently paying off for the international outfit, who was one of the few sides to not make any changes in the off-season. In an interview with BLIX, coach Jan “Swani” Muller blamed the team’s bad form on mental issues, where bad results produced a lack of confidence, affecting performances. This is evidently not the case in Cologne, as even IGL HooXi has played without fear and pressure, taking down FaZe on Inferno almost single-handedly.

Read More: Swani: "There was no need for us to overreact to a few results"

FaZe also have a very manageable path to the trophy, having to face the winner of the Danish derby between Heroic and Astralis in the semifinals. Casper “cadiaN” Møller’s side has looked shaky at the event, narrowly overcoming both TheMongolZ and Monte before losing to ENCE in the decider match. Astralis on the other hand exceeded expectations, but G2 already beat Nicolai “device” Reedtz’s side once in Cologne. Similarly, G2 has already convincingly overcome Vitality, who could be their opponents in the final as the apEX’s team is itself the favorite against Cloud9 and ENCE.

To sum up, G2 has been the most convincing team at the event and dominated both main rivals for the title in Vitality and FaZe. While ENCE and Heroic’s peaks could bother HooXi’s outfit, and Ax1le’s Cloud9 are impossible to judge accurately before their quarter-final debut, G2 should still have the upper hand. Their hopes, however, rest on huNter- continuing his strong tournament, or G2 could falter as they already have over the course of the first half of 2023.

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