Union beat Mainz on a rollercoaster of an evening to go top of the table, at least until FC Bayern play tomorrow, with goals from kevin behrens and Jordan Siebatcheu. It means that in 2023 Union have played five, won five.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon (79. Gießelmann) – Seguin (79. Thorsby), Khedira, Haberer (69. Laïdouni) – Becker (89. Leweling), Behrens (79. Siebatcheu)
1. FSV Mainz 05: Dahmen – Hanche-Olsen, Bell, Fernandes – da Costa (71. Leitsch), Barreiro (89. Gruda), Kohr (55. Stach), Caci – Onisiwo, Lee (71. Barkok) – Ajorque (71. Ingvartsen)
Goals: 1:0 Behrens (32.), 1:1 Ingvartsen (79.), 2:1 Siebatcheu (84.)
Things couldn’t have been more different here in the the Alte Försterei than the last time Union played Mainz. That was away, of course, and while there was a little snow in the air in Berlin, here today in early February, the temperatures were blowing thermometers nation-wide back in August. It was a game of attrition, a torturous battle in punishing conditions, played out on a pitch that had as much give as concrete, where the ball bounced prodigiously. Here the hallowed turf was still sodden from the biblical storm that had passed over, particularly during the Wolfsburg game. The trees of the Wuhlheide could use the nourishment, but it made the pitch a sticky, muddy mess.
When Leandro Martins took out Danilho Doekhi after five minutes he left a gouge taken out of the turf, as if it had been ripped off like a plaster off a child’s knee.
Union were confident back then, on the second day of the season, but here they were something else, coming into this off the back of four straight wins since the re-start. They stroked the ball about, their patience and clam amongst the roaring of the stands, was palpable.
One of Union's defining characteristics throughout this season has been in the strength and durability of the squad, and once again Fischer could rely on what he calls the “Qual der Wahl”, or the painful joy of choice. He’d been asked in his press conference if he would rotate, to which the unfortunate journalist knew the answer already. But, still he had to ask.
“Yes.” was Fischer’s response, as blunt as a sledgehammer. He smiled, and left a long pause. “But then you knew I’d say no more, didn’t you?”
Here it took its shape with Christopher Trimmel once again at right-back and the impressive Jerome Rousillon on the left and with Kevin Behrens, having celebrated his birthday yesterday, up front, just as they had against Hertha BSC.
Union wait to take a deserved lead
Union started out as if they had all the time in the world, trying out the pitch, working out where the gaps would be in a Mainz side where Jae Sung Lee was flitting between making up a front three and a midfield five. Danilho Doekhi, Robin Knoche and Diogo Leite all cleaned up simple little balls with an effortless simplicity, the positioning of chess grand masters, in the first three minutes alone. And if the pitch was the opposite, they are the bedrock upon which this side’s remarkable success is built.
So if Union felt confident, it was because their team-mates knew they had them at the back there. Leite chased Karim Onisiwo fifty yards, matching him step for step, pace for long pace, after Haberer’s heavy touch, blocking out the Mainz striker’s cross with a perfect inevitability.
The Portuguese runs with his left arm cocked slightly, holding it similarly to the way the great marathon runner Haile Gebrselassie did his. Doekhi chased the number nine down similarly, but over a shorter distance, with similarly inimical timing.
Kevin Behrens, meanwhile, made his own long-distance run in the opposite direction, having sprung Sheraldo Becker suddenly free on the right, though his style is more direct, a piston engine compared to a hovercraft.
Union looked utterly in control of things as those first minutes passed. It is such a rare sight in football, it deserved a moment to be watched. They weren’t fussy, just glacially calm, ready to spit like a viper when necessary. They would get their chances.
After ten minutes Trimmel took a corner from the right, it dropped for Seguin, but Haberer got in the way. The ball found its way back to the captain who clipped one this time with his right where Rani Khedira flicked the slightest of headers just wide of the back post.
Danny da Costa caused Mainz’s first real danger to Union when he put the ball one side of Leite and went the other, he hit a sharp, short, low cross into the box but Frederik Rönnow was there as he has been so often this season to snuff out the danger. He dropped the ball before he kicked it back out. It bounced under waist height.
Union opened the scoring after 32 minutes and a sustained bout of possession, the ball working its way via Leite to Khedira, and out to Paul Seguin whose low cross into the box was missed by Trimmel, but was instead flicked home by birthday boy Behrens. He raced away to the crowd, on a streak, having scored against Bremen and Wolfsburg, and now Mainz.
Rönnow had to be alert to pluck a deep Hanche-Olsen cross out of the sky, but Union remained largely untroubled up to the break, the air thick with the Unioner’s cheers, the league table showing the impossible again.
Mainz equalise, but Jordan secures the win
Union started throwing everything they had at Mainz, but play was paused as Dominik Kohr and Janik Haberer went down after a clash of heads. Haberer watched nervously over his counterpart, as he lay prone on the pitch. Kohr tried to struggle on but was taken off after five minutes, trudging sadly to the touchline.
Rousillon is a very different full-back to Julian Ryerson, but he’s no less effective. He scorched past da Costa as if he wasn’t even there, but his cross was hoicked clear gratefully. He showed his strength against the Mainz player ten minutes later, holding him off with the ball almost nestling on the touchline. Paul Seguin hit a delightful ball into the channel for Becker to run on to but it was shepherded out by Edmilson Fernandes. Rousillon was then involved in a delightful move after almost 70 minutes, combining with Becker and Khedira on the left, but his cross was just too low.
And to top them all he hit a glorious bending pass with the outside of his boot, taking two men out of the game immediately, for Becker, but the striker's studs got caught up in the grass and he went over before he could beat his man.
It took a Leite lunge to nudge an Anthony Caci cross out from the left as Mainz battled gainfully; he cleared another almost the length of the pitch to Becker a few seconds later.
Haberer found Seguin, who found Trimmel, who cut it back to the midfielder. His deep looping cross was nodded back by Becker, not dissimilarly to how they scored their second against Wolfsburg, but Mainz were alive to the danger this time.
All the time Union were playing on the very limit, Becker constantly on the shoulder of the Mainz defence. He threw his hands up in frustration when he almost reached keeper, Finn Dahmen’s loose pass out wide. He’d got a toe to it and knew how close he was to suddenly being free. The pitch was cutting up immensely now, more players going down, one after another. Becker would do so again with five minutes to go when one-on-one with Andreas hanche-Olsen.
Mainz made three changes with 20 minutes to go, the former Unioner Marcus Ingvartsen coming on to a ripple of warm applause.
Anton Stach’s greeting was somewhat less warm, he only got a crunching challenge by Rani Khedira.
It was Ingvartsen who scored Mainz’s equaliser after a VAR decision gave the guests a penalty for a handball from Seguin in the box following a corner, despite Union’s wild protestations. Urs Fischer had smiled during his press conference when discussing Mainz coach, Bo Svensson’s red card during his midweek mauling against FC Bayern.
“I’m sure I’ve said one or two things from the bench, myself,” said the Union head coach. Football is a game of emotions and sometimes it can get to you, sometimes you can lose control of things you probably shouldn't. It’s understandable, he said with a mischievous chuckle
“But maybe I had the advantage of saying it in Swiss-German, and they just didn’t understand.”
Here, however Fischer kept his cool, even as Ingvartsen scored, hitting the spot-kick hard to Rönnow’s left, giving the keeper little chance.
Union poured back at them, and Fischer made a further three changes. There was a moment of chaos in the Mainz box, than another. Then another when Giesselmann came in from the left, causing bedlam to break out.
The ball ricocheted out to Jordan Siebatcheu who rifled it home with his right from the edge of the six-yard box. It was a resounding finish, a waist high strike from a striker who deserved a goal.
Now it was end-to-end stuff. Rönnow saved well from Onisiwo’s drive, diving to his left. Onisiwo then flicked the resulting corner over the bar. The substitute Aissa Laidouni was constantly involved; a step over here, a tackle there. He looks a superb acquisition. He won a corner for Union and gestured to the crowd. "Come on", he said and they roared back in response. Giesselmann took it, it came back. He took another. It went to the other side, when Thorsby won a throw in. Laidouni produced the trickiest of backheels on the edge of the box, just rolling his studs over the ball as he nudged it back to Thorsby, but his drive through the box was just stopped by the keeper.
Aymane Barkok blazed over the bar. Brajan Gruda produced a great punching save from Rönnow. Khedira went down in agony after a blow to the jaw. And the Unioner chanted as loud as ever as Hanche-Olson hit the longest of balls in towards the Union box that Leite, as ever, cleared with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of distance.
And as the final whistle finally blew after six minutes of time added on, the Unioner sung, “Hey, hey, Spitzenreiter, Spitzenreiter.”
For even if only for a moment. Briefly, Union were top of the league again.