1. FC Union Berlin rounded off a spectacular, rollercoaster of a year with a fine 2-0 win over 1. FC Köln that would ensure they could spend the Christmas break free of the worst of their worries when looking at the table. Both goals came after a goalless first half, through Benedict Hollerbach and David Datro Fofana.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon (62. Trimmel) – Khedira – Haberer (68. Bonucci), Schäfer (85. Aaronson) – Volland, Behrens (46. Fofana), Hollerbach (62. Král)
1. FC Köln: Schwäbe – Carstensen, Hübers, Heintz, Finkgräfe (80. Schmitz) – Martel (74. Kainz), Huseinbasic – Thielmann (60. Ljubicic), Uth (74. Waldschmidt), Maina – Selke (74. Dietz)
Attendance: 22.012 (Sold out)
Goals: 1-0 Hollerbach (56.), 2-0 Fofana (78.)
Nenad Bjelica sent his side out with his now familiar back four of Jerome Roussillon, Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche, and Josip Juranovic. They were, of course, behind a Frederik Rönnow who seemed to be reaching ever greater peaks in the otherwise dispiriting loss last weekend to Bochum.
Ahead of them were Rani Khedira, Janik Haberer and, back in the starting eleven after 221 long days in the miserable, injury wilderness, Andras Schäfer, while up top he again chose to play Kevin Behrens, just ahead of Benedict Hollerbach and Kevin Volland.
A goalless first half, but Rönnow shines again
Union had something to prove. What had been the best calendar year in their history couldn’t end with the damp squib that had been last week’s loss in Bochum. But Köln, too, were here in the fight of their lives. And the first half panned out just as one might have imagined on a cold, but special winter’s night in Köpenick. Chances were few and far between. Challenges, however, were aplenty.
Union looked determined as they came out. Haberer snapped into a challenge on Mark-Alexander Uth, laying down a marker before Roussillon darted inside Denis Huseinbasic into the inside left. All the while, though, an uneasy silence - the 12-minute protest against the Bundesliga clubs’ vote for outside investment for a share of future rights - held. Just as it did a week ago.
The dangerous Hollerbach charged up the left, beating Rasmus Carstensen – a man he provided constant problems to, always looking to hit the ball ahead of him with his first touch, running onto it and cutting either in or out with his next - but was barged out of play as he threatened to break.
Union’s first chance of note came when Haberer flicked a Juranovic corner just wide of the back post with a leaping header.
It was a rugged, ragged start. Union were looking to move the ball out from the back and to break on the wings as quick as they could, letting Köln come onto them when their guests had possession. Schäfer, drifting around, found space on the right after Volland brought the highest of balls down, holding off his man, Max Finkgräfe, all the while. After quarter of an hour Schäfer was dispossessed by Huseinbasic in the same position as Hollerbach had found himself in earlier.
The game was yet to really open up. Union had plenty of bodies back, but still the superb Leite made a perfectly timed slide on a marauding Carstensen, having covered half the width of the pitch to cover, and Volland did well to rob Finkgräfe as he turned Knoche inside Union’s box. At the other end he was unfortunate to not be able to control the former Unioner, Dominique Heintz’s misplaced pass out. It had been hit just too hard and bounced off him.
Köln’s threat grew as the half wore on. Eric Martel shot over from outside the box, but Rönnow barely looked troubled by it, watching the ball sail over his head with easy disdain. His time would come. Juranovic flicked a cross from the right away from by the penalty spot just as it was about to land on Uth’s head, primed and ready to finish the move off.
Rönnow then saved well with his fingertips from Huseinbasic, leading to an Union break immediately at the other end as the increasingly influential Volland found Behrens, who couldn’t direct his header on target, and it took another great stop from Leite to stop Uth from having the space to shoot in the box with five minutes of the half to play.
As is his way – he’s not one to blow his own trumpet – the Danish stopper was sanguine in his response after the game when he said, "The spectators probably didn't see the most beautiful football today, but there was a lot of fight and passion on both sides.”
But Rönnow had saved his best for last – and, knowingly, Bjelica was full of praise for him after the final whistle - a double reflex stop from Carstensen and then Jan Thielemann on the follow-up. They were another wonderful pair of saves, the first with his hands, the second with his feet, both from short range in the space of a couple of seconds. They were remarkable, he is a man in the peak of his form.
Hollerbach breaks the deadlock. Fofana doubles it
David Datro Fofana replaced Behrens for the start of the second half, and as the flares burned in the Waldseite – it was transformed into a spectacular sea of burning red against the inky night sky of Köpenick - he too seemed to add a little bit of fire into the Unioners bellies, immediately robbing Heintz and darting towards goal.
But it wasn’t all Union. Köln were tigerish, too, in attack, taking the lead from Steffen Baumgart, a two time Unioner of the year a lifetime ago on the touchline in his T-Shirt. He stormed his area, gesticulating, raging. Rönnow made another fantastic save at the feet of Uth, before Linton Maina saw his drive strike the back of a red shirt and go away to safety.
But Hollerbach had been causing problems all evening, and it was he who opened the scoring, this one another drive from the edge of the box, the measure of the one he scored against Gladbach here a fortnight ago. He took Volland's pass neatly, cutting inside Martel, and belting the ball past Marvin Schwäbe with pace and precision at the near post. He almost made it two a moment later. This time Schwäbe was able to beat his shot away.
He was taken off a few minutes later alongside the fantastic Roussillon, replaced by Alex Kral and Christopher Trimmel.
Köln upped the pressure again, but Leite was equal to whatever was thrown at him, one flick over his head in the box after an hour was imperious calmness personified.
The game was wide open now. A gorgeous move between Volland and Juranovic drew a fine stop from Schwäbe with 20 minutes to play, when it looked like Volland’s shot struck Finkgräfe’s hand in the box with 20 minutes to play. Fofana took Knoche’s long ball down beautifully but chose to shoot when Volland was in a mile of space across goal, screaming for the ball.
But it was he who would score Union’s second. Fofana set Volland away with a lovely ball outside after 75 minutes, inside his own half, Volland finding him with the return from which the Ivorian finished beautifully, crushingly, past Schwäbe, giving the flailing keeper no chance from six yards. The stadium erupted. They knew the game was up. As Bjelica said later, “After 1-0, we were the better team and deserved the win."
Fofana, with his tail up, was close to unplayable, even when poor Heintz slid in to stop him he still recovered, finding Volland again, a player who has grown so much in confidence over the last few weeks. With five minutes to play the former German international was one point of a gorgeous triangle with Knoche and Kral, moving the ball in midfield swiftly, cleverly out of any danger.
There was still time for Fofana to bring down a long Leonardo Bonucci pass from deep; taking too much time on the ball and getting crowded off it, but by that point, with six minutes added time almost played out, few cared.
For after all the highs of qualifying for the Champions League, and all the lows of the last few months, Nenad Bjelica had charted a course to a certain kind of safety over Christmas. "I'm very happy for the team, the fans and the whole club," he said. "After a difficult first half of the season so far, these two home wins are so good for us and give us confidence."
And what better present is there to give than that.