Union beat St. Pauli 3-2 in a laid-back tie that, while hardly explosive, was a fine end to an astonishing calendar year. And as the fans departed, thoughts of Christmas on their minds, even the sun started to shine.
1. FC Union Berlin: Busk – Trimmel (46. Ryerson), Knoche (46. Baumgartl), Doekhi (62. Leite), Gießelmann (62. Puchacz) – Khedira (62. Kemlein), Thorsby (62. Möhwald) – Leweling (62. Jaeckel), Michel (62. Behrens), Becker (62. Skarke) - Siebatcheu (62. Öztunali)
FC St. Pauli: Vasilj (46. Burchert) – Saliakas (46. Fazliji), Beifus, Dzwigala (80. Hartel), Paqarada (46. Ritzka) – Smith (46. Saad), Aremu (46. Roggow), Metcalfe (46. Appe) – Daschner (46. Matanovic), Hartel (46. Boukhalfa) - Otto (46. Eggestein)
Goals: 1:0 Siebatcheu (42.), 1:1 Hartel (45.+1), 1:2 Eggestein (57.), 2:2 Skarke (67.), 3:2 Behrens (86.)
Memories run deep for this fixture, Union versus Pauli. Whether it was Union’s win in the cup last season to get into the semi-final for the first time since forever, or of Torsten Mattuschka’s perfectly struck free-kick that went through the eye of a needle in front of the Waldseite on the day a volcano exploded in Iceland. Or the time a decade ago when Pauli were 2-0 up after five minutes and Tusche – for he loved playing against St. Pauli seemingly more than anyone else – seemed to just say “give me the ball”, and turned in one of the finest performances of his remarkable career in a 3-2 comeback.
It should come as no coincidence that he was there to be seen at the top of the stand today, too, smiling, chatting to excited fans; still the king of even this reduced capacity castle.
But now the gap between the sides is at its greatest in a long time. Union are flying high in the Bundesliga, of course, and Pauli have slumped down to 15th in the 2.Liga. The new hand on the pirate ship tiller in Fabian Hürzeler is yet to get the job full time since the sacking of Timo Schulz.
Yet no-one could accuse Urs Fischer of timidity going into this last game of 2022 for Union. He started with Jordan Siebatcheu as the arrowhead of an attack with Sven Michel behind him, flanked by Jamie Leweling and Sheraldo Becker. He’d also opted again for a back four, with Morton Thorsby and Rani Khedira there to plug the gaps in the middle.
It was nothing if not bold.
Pauli start off stronger, Union take the lead, Pauli pull one back
It was the returning Marcel Hartel who had the first sight of goal though, making a delightful run with his chest out after being gifted the ball by Robin Knoche. He dallied too long in the end, winning a corner, but Union should have known better than to give him the ball like that. He’s a superb, tricky, player, now operating deeper than he had when he was a regular in the promotion side at the Alte Försterei.
It was from there he laid the ball off for David Otto – a simple, elegant little nudge into space ahead of him - whose shot grazed the top of the bar from the edge of the box after just six minutes. He slipped another one to the side for Afeez Aremu a few minutes later. His shot deflected just wide of Busk’s left hand post. Pauli were the better side for swathes of the first half. Connor Metcalfe would shoot straight at Busk later in the half while Marcel Beifus put a header straight at the keeper, too.
Danilho Doekhi had to sweep up before Metcalf got away, Leweling brought down Pacarada on Pauli’s left.
Union were as if bogged down on the muddy pitch, drooping in the eternal drizzle, they struggled to assert an influence on the midfield. There was also a strange atmosphere in the Alte Försterei, the acres of brutally grey terracing left empty as preparations for the return of Union’s Weinachtssingen took place. Though the fans had laid that concrete, they failed to embed their implicit support within it to seep out at times like this.
Union had a shot on goal after quarter of an hour when Leweling blazed wide with his left foot. They had started to put a couple of moves together, a little cohesion establishing itself in the new formation. Sven Michel and Jordan combined to set up Leweling, and Rani Khedira started seeing more of the ball in midfield. Michel then found Niko Giesselmann on the left, who in turn found Jordan who passed it on to Becker, his shot blocked in the crowd. Jordan beat Marcel Beifus in a toe to toe sprint, but the defender managed to get enough on him to knock him off balance before he could shoot.
Leweling was getting increasingly involved, but he couldn’t conjure up the final moment of magic required. Michel found him with a lovely switched ball out right, he cut inside, evading Beifus, but his shot, too, was deflected wide for a corner that ultimately came to nothing, sailing over the box, past the leap of Doekhi and out for a throw. Then he brought down a higher ball from a similar position from Giesselmann that dropped over his shoulder, but again he was pushed aside. He later did well to shield the ball from Lukas daschner and Leart Pacarada before getting a push in the back from Aremu for his troubles.
With just five minutes to go until the break it was Jordan who made the breakthrough, glancing a fine, leaping header over the fingertips of Nikola Vasilj, the ball kissing the bottom of the bar before bouncing down over the line. It was a fine finish, a timely reminder of both his strength and skill in the box.
Daschner however went down easily with his back to goal under a Knoche challenge in the box a few minutes later. Hartel hit the resulting penalty hard and to his left, off a three step run-up, past a wrong-footed Busk.
It was the last kick of the half. Hartel’s name was cheered warmly when he was substituted later on by the Unioner. Somehow, it was fitting that it weould be he who was there to take it.
Pauli take the lead, but Union drag themselves back into it
While Hürzeler changed most of his side at half time, Fischer was content to wait, sticking with his side, sticking with his system, with just Julian Ryerson and Timo Baumgartl taking the places of Knoche and Trimmel, like-for-like. Leweling continued to make a nuisance of himself on the left while Becker started to see more of the ball on the right hand side.
But it was Pauli who took the lead after Pacarada launched a deep, bending free kick into the box where Johannes Eggestein rose to meet it, level with the back post, six yards out. His header went back across goal, over Busk’s hands, nestling inside the far post.
Union countered. Becker’s cross from the left just being toed away before it reached Thorsby. Becker swore at that. Then he punched the ball while on the floor in what would be his final act of the game. His standards as high as ever. But there were eight Unioner lined up already like puppets in a shop window’s Christmas display, ready just to go on.
And with it Union switched back to a back three, Puchacz and Ryerson as wing-backs.
It paid dividends with 25 minutes to go as young Aljoscha Kemlein took a touch forward before finding Kevin Behrens, who slipped a short ball across to Tim Skarke, who scored his second goal in two games, rounding the keeper and finishing with his left.
One shouldn’t read too much into these things, but it was reassuring to see the leap in confidence that Kemlein had seemingly made in just these couple of appearances. His shoulders were back now, it was as if he had more time on the ball. He started to bully Carlo Boukhalfa in the middle. A couple of minutes later he looked up before hitting another ball out to Puchacz. It wasn’t much, but in that simplicity, in that effortlessness, there was something. A couple of playing hours ago, he may well have snatched at it.
Puchacz was at his darting best, too, on the left. A three step move of his in the box led to a rebound that he volleyed, his shot tipped just over by Vasilj.
Union had certainly improved with the change, but Fischer, after the final whistle said that this was logical. You can't change a system overnight, he said, especially when you've been honing another for so long.
But it was on the opposite flank that Union’s winner would come from. With five minutes left Julian Ryerson - with chalk on his boots, as they used to say - brought down a long ball hit from the half way line beautifully, watching it all the way, killing it dead with a touch before turning Beifus inside out. His cross was finished with the minimum amount of fuss by Kevin Behrens.
It was the last major act of the game, the last impactful touch of a year in which Fischer’s side had surpassed all expectations outside of, possibly, his own. And as the weak but pretty and golden sun came out for the first time over Köpenick, and the thousand or so Unioner drifted off home in their different directions to prepare for Christmas, there was a contented haze drifting across the Alte Försterei.
It will be there, hanging in the air, for some time yet.