1. FC Union Berlin could celebrate following their first game of 2024, a 2-0 victory over DSC Arminia Bielefeld on a bitterly cold afternoon in the Alte Försterei in front of a superb crowd of over 14,000 people. Following a goalless first half Union’s lead was provided by Brenden Aaronson after 55 minutes before Janik Haberer made it two five minutes later.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow (46. Schwolow) – Jovanovic (46. Trimmel), Knoche (46. Jaeckel), Leite (76. Ogbemudia), Roussillon (76. Dehl) – Haberer (61. Schäfer), Král, Aaronson (85. Schleinitz) – Volland (61. Tousart), Behrens (46. Bonucci), Hollerbach (46. Kaufmann)
DSC Arminia Bielefeld: Kersken (46. Oppermann) – Özkan (46. Oppie), Schneider (79. Obermeyer), Belkahia, Großer (79. Cherny), Lannert (66. Yildirim) – Wörl (66. Geerkens), Biankadi (79. Putaro) – Boujellab (46. Momuluh), Klos (46. Koch), Wintzheimer (46. Shipnoski)
Goals: 1-0 Aaronson (54.), 2-0 Haberer (59.)
The starting XI:
Though Nenad Bjelica was sending out his first Union side into a friendly, he didn’t seem inclined to take too much to chance, sending out a strong XI anchored by Frederik Rönnow in goal behind the now standard starting back four of Josip Juranović, Robin Knoche, Diogo Leite and the birthday boy, in his debut starting as captain, Jérôme Roussillon. In midfield were Alex Král, in for the recently injured Rani Khedira, alongside Janik Haberer and Brenden Aaronson.
Up top he played Big Kevin Behrens, behind whom Benedict Hollerbach and Kevin Volland were given the freedom to roam and to probe.
A cold, and goalless first half
There were arctic conditions at the Alte Försterei, the lights on full beam from the off, their glare reflecting off sand on the streaky, freshly laid pitch that sprung up with every step, and the steam of the players’ breaths coming out like that of racehorses. Accordingly, the game took a while to show many signs of a spark.
Manuel Wintzheimer had the first chance of note, when he drove wide having been played in by the legendary DSC number nine, the talismanic Fabian Klos, before Hollerbach went immediately up the other end, cutting inside and shooting at Jonas Kersken in the Arminia goal.
But if there was pressure on anyone to perform it was on Brenden Aaronson, playing at the tip of midfield, he chased the guests all the way back from his own box into theirs after ten minutes, irrepressible steps, coils of hair bouncing as he went. He was ready to spring when Volland latched onto a misplaced corner and set him, away and he beat three men in two steps before finding the birthday boy Roussillon on the right.
He fought and fought, taking a crunch off Marius Wörl with ten minutes to play of the half that left him wincing.
Wintzheimer, meanwhile, was constantly involved; he raged as Leite brought him down in the box, taking just enough of the ball with a last minute lunge to satisfy the referee. Leite called for one himself following a corner at the other end after half an hour, but his pleas were somewhat half hearted. The Portuguese was much more convincing when he needed to disarm Nassim Boujellab, muscularly and decisively, shortly before the break following Knoche’s under-hit backwards pass
The game flickered but struggled to ignite in the freezing cold. Hollerbach – the only man in short sleeves on either side, his mind flush with memories of when he scored three in the two relegation playoffs against Arminia last summer – was a now familiar blur of motion on the left, ahead of a Roussillon who seemed to be relishing his extra responsibility, always looking to hit the guests on the break. His lovely tackle on Wörl led to him having Union’s best chance of the half after 27 minutes, when he drew a fine stop from Kersken, diving to his left to tip the ball around the back post.
Union were now in the ascendancy, a series of corners being bundled away with a certain uncertainty by Kersken; Volland growing increasingly influential drifting out right, Haberer pushing up through the middle. But they couldn’t break through a dogged Arminia side, who still posed their own threat occasionally, as when Merveille Biankadi saw his top-corner-bound shot tipped over by a flying Rönnow. The Bielefeld midfielder would have another one deflected away in the second half.
Arminia, indeed, had their best period of play following that, but neither side could break through, and the temperatures rose only briefly when Volland clashed with Wintzheimer on the touchline following a foul.
Aaronson gets his goal, Haberer doubles
Bjelica rung in the changes at half time, taking off four fifths of his back line; Rønnow, Leite, Knoche and Juranović being replaced by Alex Schwolow, Leonardo Bonucci, Paul Jaeckel and Christopher Trimmel. He also introduced Mikkel Kaufmann for Behrens, he and Volland now taking turns to occupy the more central role, and it almost worked wonders as Volland’s clever through ball with the outside of his boot almost found his new partner within minutes.
Roussillon continued to inspire, dancing around Christopher Lannert after slipping, pirouetting like the finest dancer you ever saw, lighting up the start of the half. But the pair would be on the floor a moment later, forcing Bonucci to put the ball out of play as the Bielefeld player, particularly, needed further attention. The Italian’s glacial sense of calm both useful and prescient when he needed to turn and clear in his own box five minutes in.
But finally, Aaronson would get his chance. He brought a delicious long pass from Bonucci, the kind he hits for fun in his sleep, down with his chest six yards out, he took a touch, switched it onto his right as he cut inside, and finished, giving Kersken no chance. It was only his second goal in a red shirt and was fully deserved.
As he danced along the edge of the Bielefeld box with 25 minutes to play, and as he drove at Klos a moment later, you’d never know the weight that must have fallen from his shoulders. For he’d never stopped before his goal, and he wasn’t going to now. He implored the linesman when flagged offside from Trimmel’s long ball up into the inside right channel, as he looked pained when his clever squared ball to András Schäfer saw the Hungarian’s shot saved at the last by Kersken’s replacement Leo Oppermann.
Union would make it two before the hour was up, Haberer side-footing from ten yards out, his shot aimed for the right-hand post, but taking a horrible deflection along the way, leaving poor Kersken wrong-footed. Haberer barely celebrated, looking as guilty as a kid caught with his fingers in the till.
Union had further reason for cheer in the introduction of the youth players, Tim Schleinitz and Ogbemudia Oluwaseu, the latter a particularly bright prospect, last seen pointing the way to Robin Knoche in pre-season at Luckenwalde, and now slotting in next to the 20 years older Bonucci in his debut at the Alte Försterei. He strode forwards after only a couple of minutes with the ball at his toe, looking every inch like he belonged on this stage, laying the ball off for Trimmel with the calmness of his partner at the back, beating Aygün Yildirim over a short sprint like the Bielefeld player wasn’t even there.
Bjelica was cautiously optimistic following a final whistle that came on exactly 90 minutes, and nothing more, noting the troubles his side had breaking down their guests in the first half, but the improvement after the break. “We still have a lot of work to do this week in order to be as well prepared as possible for the game against SC Freiburg," he said.
But he was at least safe in the knowledge that the first test of the year had been passed.