1.FC Union Berlin finally lost at home in the league, 3-0, to Rasenballsport Leipzig in a bruising encounter that saw them reduced to ten men following Kevin Volland’s red card.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović (71. Trimmel), Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Gosens - Král, Laïdouni (71. Haberer) – Volland, Behrens, Fofana (60. Hollerbach)
RasenBallsport Leipzig: Blaswich – Henrichs, Simakan, Orban, Raum – Schlager, Kampl, Simons, Dani Olmo – Openda (75. Baumgartner), Poulsen (75. Sesko)
Goals: 0-1 Simons (51), 0-2 Sekso (85), 0-3 Sesko (87)
Attendance: 22.012 (Sold out)
Keeping your eyes on the prize
Urs Fischer prickled slightly during his press conference on Friday afternoon when faced with the inevitable questions abut the previous night’s draw for the Champions League. He didn’t want to be drawn on its historical consequences; he is a man for whom focus solely on the next game is like a mantra.
As quickly as he was drawn towards the shimmering lights of Europe, he was back in the room, drawing the subject back to today, to the difficult task of a Rasenballsport Leipzig side who appeared to have replaced their departed superstars unerringly.
Perhaps though there was also something niggling away at him, the knowledge that Union had last lost in the league at the Alte Försterei in February 2022 and it had to come at some point. It had been an incredible run of 24 games. Their fortress, the Alte Försterei, had taken on mythical proportions. Union had also beaten their guests in five league games on the bounce.
But for the fans, of course, it hurt that this would happen against Leipzig more than almost any other club. For this fixture was also about far more than the cap to a breathless week, and about more than maintaining their 100 percent record in 2023/24. For them, Leipzig represent the imminent threat of everything they see as being devastating to their vision of a game that belongs to the people - to them - and their inherent traditions.
They began with the traditional 15 minutes silent protest, just as they have started every game against Leipzig since their first meeting in the 2. Liga nine years ago; a poignant reminder that without them, football is nothing, that commerce can never be allowed to trump community. The atmosphere prickled as if someone had plugged the Alte Försterei into the mains.
Union’s U-19s had beaten Leipzig’s last week, 5-1, as on Sunday lunchtime Union’s women had beaten theirs 1-0. Now all Fischer had to do, was to ensure that his players lived up to their significant side of the deal.
That they couldn’t is not the end of the world. They had given their all, and their opponent’s extra man would prove decisive in the end. But all good things have to come to an end some time.
At the back, of course, Fischer could rely upon Frederik Rönnow, freshly crowned Union player of the year, back from his heroics against Darmstadt and his remarkable two penalty saves against Mainz. He also refused to bow to the idea of installing the brand-new signing, Leonardo Bonucci, in defence, preferring to stick with his trusty back five of Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche and Danilho Doekhi, with Robin Gosens (fresh from his own heroics last week) and Josip Juranovic as the wingbacks.
He installed Aissa Ladouni alongside Alex Kral, as a conjoined holding midfield pair, and ahead of them was a three of Kevin Behrens, David Datro Fofana and Kevin Volland, making his own first ever start as an Unioner. Sadly, his starting debut would prove less star-struck than his international team-mate’s.
A goalless but corruscating first half.
Leipzig had a lot of the ball as the uncomfortable silence prickled in the air, and they immediately went on the attack as David Raum went down in the box, but his flamboyant lunge wasn’t convincing enough for the referee, Daniel Schlager, and Union reacted straight away.
It would be the story of the half.
Fofana tricked his way around two Leipzig players with the ball, then Gosens hit a ball to Volland on the left, having won it back following an early lax touch. His cross was just too hard to give Behrens a sniff of reaching it.
Fofana was all tricks and muscle, pace and improvisation, and Mohamed Simakan didn’t know if he was coming or going when the Union striker went at him down the left. David Raum was beaten with a keepy-up and a cheeky flick over his head later on in the half. Simakan then hit a pass back to keeper, Blaswich, that was almost too undercooked, and the keeper had to be quick to boot the ball clear of an onrushing Behrens.
Aissa Laidouni was a willing outlet, gracing the ball every time he touched it, always finding an inch of space in the middle, but with a constant bite in the tackle, next to the whirlwind, Kral, his hair flinging to all corners.
Leipzig were not to be underestimated, though. Ikoma-Lois Openda couldn’t get on the end of Dani Olmo’s bent ball into the box. The busy Raum crossed over the heads of everyone in the box. Xaver Schlager overhit another out towards Raum and Youssef Poulsen, a man that has been a constant thorn in Union's side since all those years ago in the second division and the first clash between the sides, shot wide just before the 15 minute mark when all hell broke loose in the stands with the end of the protest.
Xavi Simons came closer with his drive from outside the box, tipped over the bar by Rönnow after almost 20 minutes.
But it was Union who were to have the first real chance, they were punching their weight. Kral bent in a beautiful ball that Volland headed at goal and Blaswich had to be sharp to punch it wide, diving to his left.
Leipzig pushed back. Simons came closer with his drive from outside the box, tipped over the bar after almost 20 minutes, then Poulsen saw his shot deflected out for a corner, that he flashed a header at as the ball passed everyone in the box, threateningly. When Simons tried to find Poulsen, Doekhi had anticipated the pass beautifully, sweeping it up with ease.
The atmosphere in the stands - after the 15 minutes was over the place erupted - was now being recreated on the pitch. Benjamin Henrichs caught Gosens late and high on the left after 25 minutes, getting a yellow card for his efforts; Kral got one a moment later for stopping Simons in his tracks. Volland then bullied Schlager off the ball in the Leipzig box, winning another corner, but Knoche’s header from it looped into the hands of Blaswich.
Inexplicably Leipzig got a free kick when Schlager caught Gosens on the touchline, leaving the Unioner writhing on the floor in pain for not the first time. Gosens got his revenge, though, robbing him artfully a minute later, starting a move via Volland and Behrens that petered out only with a moment of miscommunication between him and Juranovic.
Union were now in the ascendancy as the half wore on, a superb crossfield ball from Knoche finding Laidouni having drifted out onto the left from where he bent an exquisite cross with the outside of his right boot into the box.
But they still needed to be mindful, and were caught on the break as Openda saw his clipped shot over Rönnow roll wide when he should have done better with 40 minutes played.
Leipzig open the scoring early. Voland’s red makes Union’s task near impossible
The Union players came out early, as the music still played, their backs to the Waldseite now. And they started fast, another delight of a ball from Laidouni finding Juranovic running into space, and Fofana turning Heinrichs upside down with the neatest of touches. And when Leipzig countered, Openda was penalised for a dive in the Union box, or Union were quick to close them down.
But after 50 minutes Simons found an inch of space outside the box, this time hitting the target with a well placed right footed shot that curled past Rönnow into the top corner. He'd tried several others, but this time his placing was spot on.
Gosens described Simon's finish later on as "superb".
Union were stung, and came right back, Vollands winning a free kick that Fofana struck wide, but Leipzig were suddenly more assured, they passed the ball around, they took their time, and when Union broke, such as when Kral found Volland who tried to slip Behrens through, their final ball was often just a touch off.
The volume was incredible, but the cacophony only grew as Simons went down softly on the edge of Union’s box and his players played around him before eventually kicking the ball out of play, and when Simakan writhed around following Volland’s late challenge.
Volland was shown a straight red to his bemusement, and to the chagrin of the now seething Unioner, and it would prove decisive.
Indeed, Fischer said after the game that he thought it turned the match on its head. As the defender got up it reached breaking point, his every challenge jeered at jet engine level. Even the unflappable Gosens couldn’t hold his wrath. Simakan was taken off moments later, and an incandescent Gosens would get a yellow for a foul on Willi Orban with ten minutes to play.
Now it was all Leipzig, but they still had some significant obstacles in their way; Olmo skipped past Leite’s tackle, only Kral’s presence stopping his cross from going into the box. Rönnow held the resulting corner, somehow even beating Behrens to the ball.
But his save from Olmo after 75 minutes, flinging himself to tip the ball over the bar, was a thing of remarkable athleticism and agility. His later stop from Henrichs, as Leipzig seemed to have five more players than Union, was less spectacular, but equally as impressive.
Union were now struggling to assert themselves, but in the middle of the storm stood Knoche, as cool as ever, picking off Simon’s pass simply, and whenever he had it, always looking to get the ball moving. He got in front of Benjamin Sesko, even though the Leipzig striker had been on for only a minute. He did similar to Henrichs having hared out to the left-back position to fill another gap.
But those gaps were all too cavernous now. Simons broke, slipping Sesko through where he took a touch and beat Rönnow, clipping the ball in off the far post. Sesko made it three two minutes later as he looped a header over Rönnow.
Union fought til the end, Kral’s lunge at the feet of Emil Forsberg being a case in point. By that point, however, it was all over.
But as the sun set with that astonishing home record, the Unioner stayed in place on the stands. They sung as long and as loud as they ever have before, and they cheered their team, too, as one, as heroes. The players looked devastated. They’ll be back to fight another day.