1.FC Union played out their final home game before the new year in a wildly exciting 2-2 draw against a determined FC Augsburg.
1.FC Union Berlin: Lennart Grill – Niko Giesselmann (Christopher Trimmel), Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche, Danilho Doekhi, Julian Ryerson – Janik Haberer (Genki Haraguchi), Rani Khedira (c), Paul Seguin (Morton Thorsby) – Kevin Behrens (Jordan Siebatcheu), Sheraldo Becker (Sven Michel)
FC Augsburg: Rafal Gikiewicz – Amaral Iago, Jeffrey Gouweleeuw, Maximilian Bauer (Ohis Felix Uduokhai), Robert Krzysztof Gumny (Reece Oxford) – Ermedin Demirovic (Arne Maier), Elvis Rexhbecaj, Julian Baumgartlinger, Ruben Vargas – Mergim Berisha (Hans Fredrik Jensen), Florian Niederlechner
Goals: 1-0, Becker (7), 1-1 Niederlechner (9), 2-1 Behrens (22), 2-2 Niederlechner (39)
There were moments in the 5-0 loss to Leverkusen on Sunday when 1. FC Union resembled nothing so much as a broken man, just trying to make it to the end. Urs Fischer called that game an “ohrfeige”, which translates, basically, as a slpa in the face, but really it was more like a punch. They’d played nine games in the last month since the win against Stuttgart on the 9th of October up to that point. Tonight, against FC Augsburg would be the tenth.
There were fears that they had already played themselves out, that it had been too much.
Niko Giesselmann came back in at right back, with Julian Ryerson switching to the left to replace Christopher Trimmel, and Paul Seguin took to the midfield spot most recently held by Morton Thorsby, who dropped back onto the bench. Kevin Behrens, recently seen helping the hobbling Andras Schäfer onto a bus in Belgium with the tenderness of a father, had taken a spot up front next to Sheraldo Becker. Possibly because Fischer had seen an ailing Jordan Siebatcheu needing a break, but more likely with half an eye on the robust Augsburg side who had committed more fouls than anyone else in the Bundesliga this year.
All signs pointed towards a struggle, a battle with few chances and fewer goals. It wasn't going to bemuch, this game, we were sure. But little did we know.
A brilliant, wild first half.
Augsburg started off with the pressure, they lacked width but pushed and chased Union through the middle. Ruben Vargas won a corner which lead to a header flashed over by Ermedin Demirovic in the first couple of minutes. But Union immediately countered, a Niko Giesselmann free kick squirming its way out to Paul Seguin, in only his second start of the season, who hit it first time not far over from outside the box.
But after only seven minutes Sheraldo Becker, who hadn’t scored in six Bundesliga games ran onto a long ball way out on the right wing. Rafal Gikiewicz came out, but he’d misjudged Becker’s pace, his exacting, killer instinct. He should’ve known better. Becker took a touch and shot perfectly from all of 35 yards, back across the box. The ball sailed through the air in slow motion before kissing the back post on its way in. It was a great finish from a tough angle, an affirmation of everything he’d done this year.
But Augsburg countered immediately, equalising after 9 minutes through Florian Niederlechner, the goal only perceptible by a slight drop in volume from the stands, it had caught them unawares.
It had been a lightning start, the polar opposite to the drudgery of Leverkusen, to what had been predicted.
Giesselmann shot just wide from the right a minute later, Robert Gumny clipping a shot onto the Union bar a minute after that. He then cushioned a header towards the back post after Ryerson’s deliciously weighted cross that Gikiewicz did well to tip wide. It was a diving stop of the kind the Unioner know well from the times he was feted as a hero in Köpenick, of course.
Ruben Vargas thought he’d been tripped in the box, as he also thought a cross had struck Diogo Leite’s hand. There was a yellow card for Gumny and one for Danilho Doekhi. And then one for Maximilian Bauer who wrestled Behrens to the ground five yards outside the box, but out to the left hand side.
Gieselmann took it, clipping the ball into the area where it was Behrens himself who rose to power a header past Gikiewicz.
There had only been 21 minutes played and Union lead 2-1.
Janik Haberer would flash another shot just wide from Ryerson’s corner just after that.
Ermedin Demirovic got a yellow card for pointlessly nicking the ball away as Rani Khedira planned to take a quick free kick. Khedira had been a calm head amongst the madness, cleaning up, always alert. The game went from end to end, up and down. Becker thought he was in but Haberer’s pass was just behind him. Becker pointed frustratedly at where he’d wanted it, but he had a look in his eyes that said that wasn’t to be that for today.
And the volume in the stadium carried on and on, and upwards and upwards.
After half an hour Augsburg's coach Enrico Maaßen made that rarest of first half phenomena, a double change, Hans Frederik Jensen and Ohis Uduokhai coming in, the latter slipping into the back to add some steel to counter Union’s threat in the air.
But on 38 minutes it was the Bosnian, Demirovic, who hit a lovely shot from distance that dipped over the hand of Grill, it bounced off the bar out to Niederlechner who met it with a superb volley, back into Union’s goal. Demirovic was, for a time, excellent, he wouldn’t stop, he chased Doekhi down and he chased Lennart Grill down, unsettling them, trying to sew seeds of angst at an Union back line bruised from Sunday's beating.
Union won a corner with the final touch after a gazelle like run from a Doekhi who was always ready to take the game to Augsburg, with his chest puffed out, towards the box. But nothing would come of it.
A goalless second half, but for no lack of effort
The second half started as the first had ended. Behrens was immediately set through, straight down the middle, but was tripped by Jeffrey Gouweleeuw. He had won a free kick 30 yards out; dead centre. Giesselmann hit it hard but deftly, too, bending the ball onto the bar. Suddenly Khedira went down in the box, convinced he’d won a penalty, but the referee ignored his pleas.
There was no let up. Behrens set Becker free who pulled the ball back for Seguin who dallied just a little too long, underhitting his eventual pass out to Ryerson on the overlap. Gumny went down easily as Becker tried to get around him, just as he’d been doing relentlessly all night – all season - a twisting, turning, tormenting menace. There were times when the Dutchman was unplayable when he had the ball at his toe. He skipped onto Khedira’s clever chip on the hour, winning a corner.
Meanwhile Julian Ryerson hurled himself into tackles on the right. He hit passes square and he hit them long into the channels. He battled with Jensen and he battled with Iago. He held off the attentions of both Niederlechner and Iago again while on the ground. With five minutes left to play he popped up on the inside left, having swapped out for the oncoming Christopher Trimmel, celebrating his 100th Bundesliga appearance for Union. He cut in and he cut out out, sending Jensen every which way but loose, but shot just wide.
If anyone did, Ryerson deserved a goal.
Maaßen made a further two changes after 65 minutes. Demirovic’s flame had been extinguished. He’d been lucky not to get a second yellow card after a chop at Robin Knoche’s ankle earlier in the half.
It was Becker of course who created Union’s next great chance. He sprung, taking the ball on. Union were suddenly three against two. He set up Seguin on the right who crossed pinpoint to Becker, but just when you thought he couldn’t miss, he headed inexplicably wide.
It was now all Union, as they attacked the Waldseite, Ryerson and Becker at the heart of everything. Ryerson crossed for Becker, Ryerson crossed for Behrens, Ryerson playing a neat one-two with a Doekhi who was constantly advancing, himself, as Union strived to take back the lead.
Becker would be taken off a minute later, replaced by Sven Michel, whose stabbed shot was just toed wide by Gikiewicz with five minutes to go. The resulting corner wound its way to Genki Haraguchi but his shot through the crowded box was well stopped by a diving Gikiewicz. He’d see another shot go just wide as the game entered time added on.
There was to be no repeat of the heroics from Gladbach, nor the searing hurt of Leverkusen. But the players deserved every bit of the joy and the love they were given by the crowd as they trouped around the Alte Försterei pitch for the last time this year.
The fans held up banners celebrating their achievements; the European qualification and eventual mastery, the leading of the league for seven long, impossible weeks. It had, they said, been one long, beautiful dream.
“Thanks for everything”, it read.
For they’d proved time and again that they would always come back. Even from a smack in the face.