Union and Köln shared the points on a cold afternoon at the Alte Försterei on Saturday, but there were chances for both sides in an engaging and battling match, enlivened by the superb performance of Frederik Rönnow, particularly, in Union’s goal.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Juranovic – Laïdouni (81. Thorsby), Khedira, Haberer (68. Seguin) – Becker (90. Michel), Behrens (68. Siebatcheu)
1. FC Köln: Schwäbe – Schmitz, Hübers, Chabot, Hector – Martel, Skhiri – Maina (86. Adamyan), Ljubicic (90.+2 Lemperle), Kainz (84. Olesen) - Tigges
Attendance: 22,012 (sold out)
A tight run story
There was a famous game between Köln and Union over 20 years’ ago when Köln were four nil up at half time. They went on to score another three without reply in the second half, and the Unioner started singing about it being a “ganz engen Kiste”. Basically, they said, their voices dripping with self-deprecation, how close it had been. That phrase has gone down in history, as a mark of how they would never desert their club even when things were at their worst – and they were on their way to that.
Well this was different. Not only because Köln let Union have the ball – in itself a sign of how far Union have come, a win would have given them a four point cushion over fouth placed Leipzig in the table – but because it really was a close run thing. Closer, even, than the last time the sides faced each other when only Timo Hübers’ own goal separated the sides.
Up front for Union that day was Steffen Baumgart, of course. Now he is stalking the Köln touchlines as head coach. The only man in the stadium not playing, wearing a vivid white t-shirt. He had won here last with his Paderborn side, effectively confirming their automatic promotion while Union would be damned to third and the relegation play-off against Stuttgart
If Baumgart was giving the impression of a man relaxed, Urs Fischer, meanwhile, had been forced into one drastic change as both of his left-backs, Niko Giesselmann and Jerome Rousillon, were out injured. So Josip Juranovic came in on his unnatural flank, Christopher Trimmel slotting in as normal on the right. Juranovic has played the position before, of course, notably in his debut at Celtic in the bear pit of Ibrox stadium in the Glasgow derby.
Fischer though continued to show his faith in Kevin Behrens up top, and restored Janik Haberer to the left of midfield having served his suspension against Bayern last weekend. Aissa Laidouni therefore moved nominally at least back to the inside right hand side.
A battling first half remains goalless
The pitch showed yellowing stripes from its midweek relaying, a divot on Union’s inside right channel appeared immediately like a volcano rising out of the southern pacific, a crater appeared by the left hand touchline. However, it remained largely true, despite its appearance, the biggest scars being the ones left by the thundering challenges.
For it was a battle in places down there.
Juranovic saw the ball early on the left in his new position, combining with the superb Diogo Leite and Haberer. Laidouni was getting up and down, he was everywhere at once somehow. An early neat tackle on Dejan Ljubicic earning applause from the stands. A simple shrugging off the ball of Eric Martel was followed by the simplest of passes to captain Christopher Trimmel. He then was sure to be back in time to stop Linton Maina running onto a breaking ball.
In those opening minutes Behrens had an inch of space, he shot to Schwäbe’s right but the keeper was down to it in time. He would rise repeatedly to knock down long balls, setting Trimmel free on the right, his cross for Haberer beaten away. He tackled Julian Chabot after 10 minutes and thought he was away, but the referee, Tobias Stieler, blew his whistle.
But both sides' play was cursed by moments of imprecision. Juranovic dallied and was robbed by Martel on the edge of the box, he found Steffen Tigges who squared but there were no Köln players there to take advantage. The Coatian was left in a heap ten minutes later as Schmitz caught him with an elbow. Köln played on (to which the crowd were incenesed, livid) and the resulting shot rolled just wide of Rönnow’s goal. But he up straight after, and was involved in a lovely passing move down the left that began with Leite, and ended with Janik Haberer’s ball to Behrens down the right just snuffed out by Chabot.
Leite was superb, his timing impeccable, his passing crisp and prescient. He controlled and moved the ball on on the edge of the Köln box surrounded by three men with ease, he instructed his teammates with utmost authority. He graced the pitch. He raced back to clear Ljubicic’s cross and did so as if he had been standing waiting for the ball there all day long. When maina threatened to overtake him from behind after 36 minutes, he knew all along that Danilho Doekhi, ahead of him, had everything covered, he had the angles and the distances all worked out already.
Tigges found Linton Maina at the back post who tried to pick out Kainz with a curling ball from the right. Union then broke from the corner, Laidouni sprung free by Juranovic who found Becker. Becker was only stopped from centring for a sprinting, and all alone Juranovic, by Ljubicic’s last-ditch tackle. Though he got the ball, he left Becker wincing on the ground, and the Unioner holding their breath. Becker was lead unsteadily off the pitch but would return a minute later, a grimace on his face, his teeth bared.
Becker wasn’t daunted, he sprinted past Kainz as if he wasn’t there with five minutes to go of the half, his cross to Behrens just headed clear before the striker could head it on towards goal.
The game opens up, Rönnow shines
The second half started with more chances than in the first almost immediately. It rocketed into life at both ends.
Juranovic first volleyed over after Haberer’s clever flick on, side-footed with time on his hands and the ball dropping onto his foot perfectly. But Köln countered. Maina shot over from a tight-ish angle, but he should have at last made Rönnow work and he knew it. Martel did better a few minutes later drawing a fantastic stop from the keeper. Rönnow did better almost on the hour with a superb, one-handed point blank, reflex stop from Kainz.
The keeper was immense at times in that second half, he was the rock upon which Union’s point was anchored.
Union weren’t without their own threat, especially as they had so much more of the ball. Trimmel tricked his way past Hector and clipped a ball into the box. He then combined with Laidouni, winning a corner. Laidouni worked the crowd in the Waldseite.
Leite robbed Martel but the referee whistled even though he had the ball at his toe. The crowd roared in indignation and the sun came out from behind its permanent grey shroud for the briefest of moments. Laidouni and Doekhi beat Tigges on the left. But there were also mistakes and errors from both sides. Laidouni was robbed by Jonas Hector whose shot was, again, well stopped by Rönnow. Haberer found Ljubicic by mistake. Juranovic found Schmitz when Sheraldo was breaking into a mile of space alone.
And the game stuttered, stopped, and started as the referee stopped play constantly for the slightest of infractions.
Becker shot over from the edge of the box when Behrens put him through. He turned away in disgust at himself. There’s a bit in Frank Nussbücker’s excellent book about Wolfgang “Potti” Matthies where it was said the Union legend always blamed himself for everything that happened on the pitch. Well, so the impression was given, so does Sheraldo. He should give himself a break.
He almost made up for it moments later when his cut back was millimetres away from Behrens.
Fischer brought on Jordan and Paul Seguin after almost 70 minutes, looking to try and create an opening, but few more would really come.
Indeed, Kainz drove a shot wide after Knoche had robbed Tigges just in time in the box. It was closer than Union would have like for comfort. Trimmel then shot over after a period of Union pressure with ten minutes to go. Seguin tried to find space in the box, Jordan shuttled, being pushed back, everyone was jostling for space that wasn’t there.
Köln were content to let the last minutes play out. Juranovic played a clever back-heel to Becker, Robin Knoche hit a long free kick. Rönnow wandered out of his box almost as far as the halfway line looking to hit a final ball, but everyone knew by that point that it wouldn’t be enough to fashion a victory.
And at the end Rönnow said that he “wasn’t unhappy” with the point, because, well, sometimes... sometimes a point is enough.