Union and Schalke played out a battling, and largely entertaining 0-0 draw on Sunday afternoon at the Alte Försterei. It was a game of few chances, and one that saw Urs Fischer make sveral changes from his side who had played in Amsterdam midweek. It drew them level on points with FC Bayern, who they travel to play, of course, next weekend.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel, Doekhi, Knoche, Baumgartl, Gießelmann (81. Roussillon) – Laidouni (65. Seguin), Khedira, Haberer (81. Thorsby) – Behrens (65. Siebatcheu), Michel (58. Becker)
FC Schalke 04: Fährmann - Brunner, Jenz, Yoshida, Uronen (36. Ouwejan) - Kral, Krauß, Zalazar (79. Terodde) - Drexler, Frey (79. Karaman), Bülter
Attendance: 22,012 (sold out)
Curious questions of an unusual nature before the game
With a new goal replacing that of staying up in the Bundesliga - qualification for Europe for the third year in a row - a question of a wholly new nature was to face Urs Fischer in the build up to this game. Schalke were bottom, and Union a point off the top. Bayern’s loss to Mönchengladbach on Saturday afternoon meant that should Union win, then they would be leapfrogged. What happens when you go from being an underdog to an overdog?
But Fischer is adept at such situations, his focus on the next game and the next game only is laser guided. His ability to give his players the clarity of though and confidence of will has got Union to where they are. He had said all along that this would be a struggle, especially after Europe, and he knew that Schalke hadn’t conceded in three games.
They had also played out three 0-0 draws this year. Another wasn't the greatest of surprises.
However, there is not just the question of expectation. He said how much strength the Ajax fixture cost his team. He said he would be rotating against Schalke, and he did just that. Niko Giesselmann came back in on the left and Christopher Trimmel did so on the right; he brought in Timo Baumgartl for a sick Diogo Leite in the back three and, eye-catchingly, Sven Michel for Sheraldo Becker.
Becker had given everything in midweek, and he had also been in the front line, as a man returning to his old haunts. It is unlikely he will have seen Fischer’s decision as such – footballers will always want to play - but Fischer had faith in his replacements.
And Michel, of course, had enjoyed himself when he came on against the same team last autumn, taking to the pitch like a kid in a candy store. Of his two goals that day, the second was a remarkable demonstration of footballing technique. But he would struggle to have the same freedom here, he toiled in the chilly sun, as opposed to frolicking through the heatwave of before.
A tightly poised first half remains goalless, Union lacking the killer ball.
Schalke started brightly, Alex Kral and Rodrigo Zalazar trying to get the ball down in the middle. A free kick from Union at the left back position had Robin Knoche spreading his arms. Take your time, he said to Timo Baumgartl, urging patience. Baumgartl and he and Frederik Rönnow passed the ball between them, while Aissa Laidouni snapped into tackles against Tom Krauß and then the returning Marius Bülter immediately in the middle. He was already domineering the midfield, with Khedira ably there alongside him. Laidouni linked up with Trimmel on the right, Khedira with Giesselmann on the left.
Schalke had not scored in three, but they had had the most shots in the league during that time. He was right to be wary. However, Union also could play to their own strengths. Michel made two neat touches early, bringing first Haberer into play, then hitting a curling ball into the box, just too high for Behrens. He hit another dangerous deep cross from the left hand byline after almost 20 minutes. He was always willing, with his back to goal, he cut inside Maya Yoshida with ten minutes played, but was robbed by Kral before he could pass.
But Schalke were aggressive in their pressing during those opening passages. Union struggled to find a way through.
Dominick Drexler tried to find Bülter, but Trimmel was there, aware of the danger as his man tried to sneak in at the back post after quarter of an hour. Kral almost slipped in the ever-busy Bülter, but the ball was just too heavy for the former Unioner to catch it.
There was glorious sunshine, setting half the Waldseite alive with light. And with it, Union grew into the game, also showing off their range of set pieces like a kid with a new magic set. One corner went short from Giesselmann to Trimmel, the next went deep into the box. Another, from the left this time, was hit flat along the byline to Michel.
Aissa Laidouni ghosted past Krauß, but was taken out by Moritz Jenz. Union had a free kick just outside the box, by the angle. Trimmel hit it, Jenz was there again to scramble it clear but only as far as Danilho Doekhi who scooped the ball up and the keeper, Ralf Fährmann, had to tip it over the bar. But the following corner found Michel lying on the floor, rolling in agony. The ball was put out of play, He’d taken a hit on the ribs - and it hurts there - but rose to his feet to applause after a worrying moment.
Laidouni was all over the pitch. He robbed Michael Frey when the striker took too long over controlling the ball. When he put Krauß under pressure on the opposition side a moment later, he won another free kick. He was a menace. And Union were now in the ascendancy, they were just missing the final, killer ball. It would be the story of their half.
After half an hour Behrens got a yellow card for an elbow on Krauß, he shook his head and walked away. Laidouni lobbed a lovely little ball over the top for Behrens, but he was muscled away by Jenz. His ball to Michel after 36 minutes, as Union tried to break following a Schalke corner, was just an inch away from perfection. Frey resorted to going studs up on him as half time drew near. He caught him again in the second half when Laidouni had covered thirty yards to dispossess him.
Giesselmann’s ball into the channel for Haberer was snuffed out just in time. Michel robbed Alex Kral with five to go, and fed Haberer but again the ball was squirmed clear.
But Union knew they’d need to do more in the second half to unlock a resolute Schalke side, eager to make up for the humiliation of the last time.
A tight second half remains goalless
The second half followed a similar pattern to the first. Bülter’s cleverly chested down to Frey, who tried in turn to find Drexler but Rönnow raced out of his goal to clear up. He held a long cross from Cedric Brunner with similar ease, but Union were pushing hard at the other end, too.
Behrens tried to find Michel, and was then pushed wide as he ran through the middle towards goal, looking for a chance to shoot. He darted past Jenz and passed, but Michel was just a step or two behind Yoshida when he started his run, tugging his shirt forlornly as he tried to claw back the distance.
Kral flashed a header across goal from Bülter’s cross when he should have done better. He then found Frey with a clever nudge of the ball in the box, but the striker skewed his cross. Doekhi was alert to Bülter again; Trimmel had to stop Zalazar at the last minute.
Bülter then found Ouwejan who tried to pass to Kral after an hour, as Schalke stepped up again, encroaching more and more into the Union box. Union were now riding their luck a little, Krauß was finding more time to pull the strings from the base of midfield. Kral was seeing ever more of the ball. He won a corner having nipped around Giesselmann with 20 minutes to go.
Laidouni’s last touch of the game was a drop of the shoulder and a turn, before being brought down. He leapt to his feet, gesturing to the Gegengerade crowd to get louder. They didn't need much encouragement. He’s already a star in Köpenick.
Fischer had brought on Becker for the last 25 minutes with things still scoreless. He was immediately on the shoulder of Brunner as Union looked to break, allowing Behrens to get involved further up in the box. Paul Seguin, who came on around the same time, played two lovely passes having come on; one over the top for Becker, but neither fell right. He’s got a gorgeous touch, and was always looking to move the ball on. It took three men to stop one flick and spin while the ball was in the air near the halfway line.
Trimmel latched onto Thomas Ouwejan’s misplaced pass, he ran ten yards up, and twenty across the pitch finding Becker, who was eventually brought down. Giesselmann hit the free kick from out by the touchline in Doekhi’s direction, but he could not get enough of a contact on his header for it to affect any real sense of panic in Fährmann.
Jordan came on, joined by Morton Thorsby and Jerome Rousillon. Fischer was desperately searching for a breakthrough as the game wore on, yet nothing came off, it remained goalless.
Haberer and Becker combined near the centre circle. Sheraldo broke down the left and crossed for Jordan, winning a corner. Khedira found Seguin who bent his shot too close to the keeper with his right, trying to open up his body and get it towards the back post.
Then, Union had a not undeserved slice of fortune as Drexler thought he had snuck in with under ten minutes to go, but he couldn’t connect, sliding the ball with his toe without enough power to beat Rönnow.
Jordan was incensed when he didn’t win a corner after Becker’s cross from the right. The crowd’s backs were up too at that. They roared, they whistled and they jeered. They did so too when Bülter went down under Doekhi’s challenge lightly on the half way line. Then again when Brunner went down in the box, caught as chaos reigned all around, Thorsby and Rousillon challenging him in the air.
There was a long pause as he was down. Fischer paced his technical area, Khedira spoke with the ref, and Fährmann spoke with Becker and Jordan. There were five minutes added on, and challenges were crunched into up and down the pitch. Jordan brought down a long ball from Khedira; Seguin skipped past Krauß on the right but his cross went out for a goal kick. Kenan Karaman, meanwhile, made a superb, lunging, last ditch challenge on Rousillon as he was about to cross from the left. Trimmel won a corner from the right. Rousillon drove his shot into the crowd; it took a touch and rolled agonisingly past the back post for a goal kick.
Fischer, after the game, said that there were points his players hadn’t been courageous enough, that they hadn’t backed themselves. “And it’ll be difficult if you lack precision against well organised opponents,” he said.
Schalke were certainly that, but maybe they also had the benefit of a certain lack of expectation, certainly of the kind Union have built up over the last months. Fischer looked ahead. he said now there was to be no talk of Bayern.
For now he could focus on Ajax.