Union beat Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Köpenick, with goals from Rani Khedira and Kevin Behrens to secure their third placed spot in the Bundesliga.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović, Doekhi, Knoche, Baumgartl (86. Leite), Gießelmann (76. Roussillon) – Seguin, Khedira, Haberer (86. Pantovic)– Becker (76. Leweling), Siebatcheu (67. Behrens)
SG Eintracht Frankfurt: Trapp – Buta, Tuta, Ndicka, Smolcic, Lenz (73. Max) – Sow, Götze (82. Aaronson), Kamada (82. Alidou) – Borré (67. Alario), Kolo Muani
Goals: 1:0 Khedira (53.), 2:0 Behrens (75.)
Every boxer knows that it is not important that you sometimes lose; it is how you react that counts. After Union were beaten by Eintracht Frankfurt back in October, with the season still fresh, it had felt like a hammer blow, but was of nothing compared to how their players felt on Friday morning following the Europa league defeat to Royale Union Saint-Gilloise.
But after that loss in Frankfurt Union went on a run of five wins on the bounce. They had taken it on the chin, they had witnessed Randal Kolo Mouani rising to the highest stage with an effortless grace, and knew that they would have to make things right next time.
It all sounded so simple.
But Urs Fischer knew that this one would be hard - and all the more so because Eintracht, too, had just suffered their own European torment, getting swatted aside by Napoli with the minimum of fuss. They had not lost away in six Bundesliga games, but Union too had their own impressive records to defend, the most notable being a remarkable 17 games without losing a league match at home.
They can now call that 18.
Fischer had also said that this was the time for his Union side to show their real face. And this was added a certain sharpness by RB Leipzig’s surprise loss to Bochum on Saturday. With a win, Union would secure third again.
Oh what blessed prospects.
But he had also seen the load his players had taken on. In his press conference on Thursday he said there would be rotation for sure, but canny as ever, and with a certain glint in his eye that only those with treasured secrets get to flash, but that he would never betray quite how much until the day of the match.
There was a lot, for he trusts his squad. They have been assembled thus for exactly this reason. So the back three now comprised Timo Baumgartl, coming in for Diogo Leite, alongside Robin Knoche and Danilho Doekhi. The excellent Paul Seguin – with life in his legs due to not being a member of the European squad – came in on the right of midfield for Morten Thorsby, just ahead of goalscorer Rani Khedira and Janik Haberer, chosen instead of Aissa Laidouni on the left. Niko Giesselmann started at right-back with Josip Juranovic in for the sick captain, Christopher Trimmel, on the left. Sheraldo Becker was partnered up top with Jordan Siebatcheu.
A gripping, but goalless first half.
That old-Unioner Christoph Lenz was given the warmest of welcomes by the home fans on his return, but Seguin’s greeting was somewhat less effusive, crashing him to the ground as the left-back rose for his first touch of the ball.
But it was Rani Khedira who spent the opening minutes showing off all of his capabilities; a raking challenge on Djibril Sow, followed by a delightfully weighted through ball to Becker, gliding out to the right. He flicked a left footed volley wide of the back post from the edge of the box following Jordan’s knockdown after five minutes. He was much more positive on the ball than he’d been on Thursday, when he seemed at times caught in a conflict between his defensive needs and his attacking wills.
He robbed Kolo Mouani as soon as the French international dallied a moment too long, Khedira snapped onto the ball in the bat of an eyelid.
Jordan too seemed keen to prove a point. He got on the end of another high ball a few minutes later and Becker was almost onto it, but the danger was swept up by Kevin Trapp in the Eintracht goal. Union looked sharp, Trapp having to dive to hold another, just out of reach of Becker’s toe after ten minutes. They were playing with a zip absent on Thursday, Seguin spraying the ball around, Khedira chasing all over the middle of the pitch, Becker and Jordan always looking to find the slightest hint of a gap in Eintracht’s defence.
Jordan just failed to find his partner with a flicked pass, backwards, that was intercepted, but the idea was good. They knew it, too, showing each other the thumbs up.
Sheraldo burst past Hrvoje Smolcic, taking a touch inside and shooting across Trapp’s body, but the ball rolled just wide of the back post.
The constantly dangerous, but also strangely toothless, Kolo Mouani snuck into a gap and headed wide of the near post when he should have done much better. Rafael Borre volleyed wide with his left after almost 20 minutes. Haberer drove wide, too, from outside the box, hitting the ball clean and hard, just lacking the required exactitude. Kolo Mouani then skipped inside of Seguin and almost found Götze on the charge. Smolcic saw his shot balloon over the bar on 25 minutes, taking a big slice off Khedira’s boot on the way.
Josip Juranovic burst past Mario Götze, snaking onto a misplaced pass, just after Fischer had been instructing him at the top of his voice, telling him to step up, and he nipped into the space like a man possessed. Götze had to pull him back and was lucky not to see a yellow for his efforts. It took the ever-present Rönnow to save superbly at the feet of Kamada, as he raced off his line, though. Eintracht were still dangerous, Kolo Mouani was skipping past tackles at times like he had diamonds on the soles of his boots.
But there were also moments when Union looked their old selves, too. Becker did a step-over past Evan Ndicka on the right, his cross just ahead of the onrushing Jordan.
Kolo Mouani had another great chance with his head after Buta crossed from the right, hitting it over this time. As half time approached, he laid the ball off for Borre who drove straight at Rönnow this time. Juranovic made a great stop on Buta who’d appeared in the box after Borre’s clever flick.
Union take a deserved lead through the captain; Becker thinks he’s made it two, but Behrens seals the deal
Union were in the lead within ten minutes of the restart. They had been playing the ball about with increasing confidence, Doekhi turning Kolo Mouani inside out on the left. Then Janik Haberer, who grew and grew into the game, hit a lovely ball out wide right. It came back to him, and he found Juranovic who hit the byline, chipping cheekily towards goal, where Trapp had no option other than to palm it over the bar. The corner lead to bedlam in the box, a pinball pinging around a green topped table, but it was to the boot of Khedira that it found itself, and he would not need a second chance, blasting home from the edge of the six-yard box.
Few deserved it more, and his teammates mobbed him, elated, as the crowd erupted.
Eintracht then won a corner, Lenz’s ball evading everyone in the box apart from Knoche who stroked it out wide, just be be sure. Union broke back, Juranovic earning the cheers of the crowd as he ran 50 yards to chase down Sow.
The atmosphere was tumultuous, a raging pit of vipers as Jordan seemed to be tripped, but got nothing. Then Fischer was then off his seat, raging, as Becker was brought down with still no response from the referee. Union were giving everything they had. Every challenge was raced into, every break ever more dangerous. Seguin robbed Kolo Mouani, Knoche did the same to Alario.
Then Becker had the ball in the net with 20 minutes to go, his long wait for a goal seemingly over, but it got chalked off by the video assistant for an offside many hadn’t spotted. It had come from another beautiful long ball, hit without looking, by Haberer who was increasingly confident in his range of passing, spraying the ball over the length of the pitch.
Then Kevin Behrens, on for Jordan, found an inch of space in the box. He opted to shoot through Trapp's legs. The keeper got a touch - just not enough of one - and the ball carried on, slowing lazily in the warm air. It spun itself back away from the goal. In the end it crossed the line almost reluctantly, toying with the Waldseite who tried to suck it into the net in front of them, due only to the pace put on the shot. He booted the corner flag in his eruption of joy.
Union still needed the attentions of their superb keeper, Rönnow, to be fully ready, and after the final whistle it was not to the captain and goalscorer, Khedira, nor Behrens, that the crowd’s love was given, but to him, reluctantly so. He needed a shove from Khedira to be able to really lap it up. He had made a great stop, diving to his left to stop Daichi Kamada’s point blank header, palming it wide. He held Lucas Alario’s flicked header from a deep free kick with the minimum of fuss, with just over five minutes to play. He is the bedrock upon which all of Union's success has been based.
Buta and Kolo Mouani got in each other’s way as a cross came in, substitute Jamie Leweling twisted and turned to take the ball away from any further danger. Paxten Aarenson shot wide from the edge of the box as the assistant indicated there were four minutes still to play; and as a glorious satsuma spring sun hung over the fringes of the forest.
And the Unioner... well they sung and they sung and they sung, and they looked at the table and they saw their side back in third position in the Bundesliga. It was all worth it, all the miles and all of the pain. And they knew that their side had once again responded when necessary, when everything was asked of them, again.