1. FC Union Berlin played out a fully deserved 0-0 draw against an in-form Bayer 04 Leverkusen, defined by a superb defensive performance that gave their guests few chances, and little hope. The result left Union in third place in the Bundesliga, with only four games to go.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon – Laïdouni (69. Schäfer), Khedira, Haberer (77. Thorsby) – Siebatcheu (77. Michel), Becker
Bayer 04 Leverkusen: Hradecky - Kossounou, Tah, Tapsoba, Hincapie - Andrich - Frimpong, Wirtz, Bakker – Diaby (62. Adli), Hlozek (62. Azmoun)
Jordan gets the nod, the back-line remain unchanged
Much of the talk in the build-up to this game was of Union’s strikers, those gilded players who are the stuff of headlines and of highlights. In the absence of the suspended Kevin Behrens, who had taken his opportunity and shone this year, many were asking themselves who it would be to partner Sheraldo Becker up front.
Would Urs Fischer return to his favoured partnership from the beginning of the season and install Jordan Siebatcheu, the closest to a like-for-like swap? Or would he opt for the slighter Sven Michel? Would he, maybe, even give Jamie Leweling the start he has been waiting for since his arrival at Union from Fürth last year?
Fischer, needless to say wouldn’t be drawn on any of this during his press conference, he is a master poker player, he gives nothing away, after all. And all of them have their qualities. But perhaps it wasn’t of the greatest of surprises that he plumped for Jordan. He has shown enough times how his partnership with a Becker - whose confidence has been brimming again over the last couple of weeks - can flourish. And his winner at the Alte Försterei against Mainz, when he had barged his way into the box before volleying home, was still fresh in the memory.
His was the only change from the side that had performed so dominantly and expressively against Mönchengladbach last week.
The midfield trio of Janik Haberer, Aissa Laidouni and their anchor, Rani Khedira were all there, mixing dynamism, intelligence and steadfastness in the centre of the pitch
But – and here’s the thing - as all talk focussed on the top, maybe a little more notice should have been paid to the back-line, where the triumvirate of Danilho Doekhi, Robin Knoche and Diogo Leite were flanked by the dynamite duo of Josip Juranovic and Jerome Rousillon on the right and left respectively. Union had conceded an absurd nine goals at home this season, and their almost inconceivable third place in the table (a position they still hold with four games to go) had been built upon just this.
Against Leverkusen, a side with devastating pace, and cunning intent (Xabi Alonso, for his part, made only two changes to his starting 11 from last week’s winning side in Leipzig, with Edmond Tapsoba and the dangerous Florian Wirtz returning to the team), they were to take their chance to shine.
Union on the attack, Bayer cannot find a way through
The first five minutes went by quietly as Leverkusen tried to build, stroking the ball between Jonathan Tah and Odilon Kossounou, hoping for a gap to present itself, but when it did so Knoche’s timing as he slid in to dispossess Wirtz was impeccable. As was Khedira’s on Hlozek shortly afterwards. It was a sign of things to come.
Union waited to counter, Becker getting a shot off from outside the box as Laidouni overlapped him. He was then set free after eight minutes as a lovely Haberer ball dropped onto his right foot, he turned Kossounou inside out, but was smartly tackled before he could get a shot off on time.
Becker was full of menace, dropping his shoulders, going one way and then the other, as he burst at pace at Tah and then at Frimpong later in the half.
Then Jordan had two chances, one after the other, showing his intent as he got in at the near posts, first on the right from Becker’s cross, then on the left as he squeezed off a diving header from Haberer’s. He landed on his shoulder awkwardly after the latter, screwing his up face in pain, rolling it over windmill style as he came back onto the pitch.
He looked particularly keen to make an impression, harrying back to intercept an under-hit ball from the returning former Unioner, Robert Andrich. The way he used his strength to shrug off and turn Diaby after 25 minutes, halfway inside his own half, was impeccable when danger suddenly loomed. He held off Andrich a couple of minutes after, still with his back to goal, but inside his own half, like he wasn’t even there. And Andrich is no small presence.
After half an hour he got in front of Tah as the pair tussled at the near post, but Leverkusen's keeper, Lukas Hradecky, snaffled his shot.
It was Andrich who then set Diaby free, Union’s tormentor, who scored a brace the last time the sides met, but the French international shot over with his left foot after almost 20 minutes. It was his first and last real chance at goal.
Union had been the stronger side so far, Rousillon and Juranovic were always looking to hit balls into the channels from deep, they covered mile after mile on their flanks. Rousillon, who had his best performance of an already impressive Union career, particularly was a whirlwind of energy again on the left. If one tackle on Frimpong after 25 minutes was a masterpiece when it would have been so easy to go through him and concede a foul, another, five minutes later, was done with perfect, simple elegance.
Frimpong was having a hard time, losing his footing easily on the soft turf a couple of times. But Rousillon’s attentions weren’t helping him. He was everywhere, outjumping Wirtz after that springing like he was on a trampoline. The way he booted Diaby’s scuffed shot away, when he had time to make Rönnow save at least, was effusive.
He got in front of Frimpong again on 45 minutes, when the luckless striker finally found an inch of space and a bit of solid ground upon which to balance on.
Bayer started to see more of the ball, but Rousillon’s energy was allowing Haberer to drop deeper into midfield, giving Leverkusen no time to put their foot on the ball.
Juranovic’s free kick just evaded Knoche in the box, Edmond Tapsoba was then lucky to get away with a telling off for a foul on Jordan as Union threatened to break down the middle.
Haberer and Jordan then combined with a headed one-two, winning a corner on the left for Union with five minutes to go. Juranovic hit it dangerously into the box, but Leite could only flick his header wide of the far post, and the sides went into the break still level.
Union’s defence show their mettle
The second half started at a furious pace, Frimpong shooting over in the first minute before Laidouni shot over only a minute later, following Jordan’s knock-down. The two then combined sweetly on the right, Jordan hooking the ball around a bamboozled Piero Hincapie. Rönnow had to be on his toes to stop Mitchel Bakker’s cross before Hlozek could get on the end of it.
Becker hit a delightful first-time, volleyed cross with his left from the touchline near the stroke of the hour.
Meanwhile, Union were equal to everything Leverkusen could throw at them. Laidouni’s tackle on Bakker on the opposite flank was powerful and timed to perfection. He roared to the crowd afterwards, they were enjoying themselves. Wirtz tried to trick his way through the middle but found himself crowded out; Doekhi got in front of him a moment later to clear the ball away without fuss. Leite and Knoche stopped Diaby as he charged into the box on the inside right.
And the crowd grew louder and louder as Union pushed up. Becker shot over from an angle following another excellent intervention from Rousillon. Then the ball went out for a corner following his sharp, flat cross in before it reached Laidouni.
Xabi Alonso made a double change after an hour, taking off Diaby and Hlozek, a testament to how well Union had played his vaunted strikers out of the game. Fischer made a change of his own with 20 minutes to play – fittingly, as the sun burst out from behind the gloom for the first time - Andras Schäfer making a very welcome return from his long lay-off, coming on for the excellent Laidouni.
As a testament of Union’s will, Juranovic chased back 35 yards to chase down the substitute, Sardar Azmoun, and it was hard to say who was the player who’d just come on and who was the one who hadn’t.
As did the strength Jordan showed to bring down a long ball with his chest, shaking off his man to set Becker away on the left, his cross / shot giving Hradecky a sudden flash of fear as it hung in the air, threatening briefly to drop under the crossbar.
Jordan went off alongside Haberer with just under 15 minutes to go, the former having justified the coach’s faith in him. He’d been immense; strong, but with the patience of a saint. He had held up play, and spurred it on, too. They were replaced by Michel and Thorsby; Thorsby immediately rattling into a tackle on Amine Adli as he came back over the half way line.
And even as Bayer finally started to put their passes together in the final ten minutes there was always someone there to stop them in their tracks, be it Juranovic on Wirtz, or Doekhi on Azmoun, or Leite on Azmoun with a couple of minutes to play. He immediately fed Schäfer who found Becker running past Kossounou on the left. Thorsby, however, couldn’t quite get on the end of the cross.
To round off his day, Rousillon then pulled up with cramp having charged half the length of the pitch, sliding with his last bit of energy to stop a Leverkusen break. He had given everything, and was taken off straight away. He had set the tone for a superb performance; battling, passionate and utterly determined. As had his opposite number, Juranovic, and the back three of Leite, Knoche and Doekhi.
And as Tapsoba lofted a ball over Union’s impenetrable, solid wall of a defence for a final time to no-one, he knew the game was up. Everyone did.
For all the talk may well have been about the strikers – and they had performed superbly, too – this well-deserved point belonged to the foundation, the bulwark, that impermeable back-line.