Rani Khedira sent 1. FC Union into the Champions League for the first time in their history with an 82nd minute winner against Werder Bremen. Needless to say, the roof came off.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel (78. Juranović), Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon (89. Gießelmann) – Laïdouni (63. Michel), Khedira, Haberer (63. Seguin) – Becker, Behrens (78. Siebatcheu)
SV Werder Bremen: Pavlenka – Veljkovic, Stark, Friedl – Schmid, Gruev (86. Dincki), Buchanan (61. Jung) – Bittencourt, N. Schmidt (24. Philipp) – Füllkrug, Ducksch
Goal: 1:0 Khedira (81.)
Attendance: 22,012 (sold out)
Rani Khedira, a king secures entry into the Königsklasse
Two years ago year against RB Leipzig it took until the 92nd minute for Sheraldo Becker to roll Dayot Upamecano off his shoulder like he wasn’t there at all, hitting a delicious ball to the back of the box where Max Kruse headed home, sending the Union bench wild, and Union into the Conference league.
Well, that was something. But like all good showmen, Union topped it.
Last year, in the 88th minute at home again, against Bochum this time, Taiwo Awoniyi took a ball down over his shoulder and finished emphatically with his left foot. It was a hell of a parting gift from the Nigerian striker, and it had achieved even more. Union had qualified for the Europa league.
Well, that was nothing.
For today, Rani Khedira stepped up. With only nine minutes of time remaining he slotted home the winner against a resolute Werder Bremen, shooting back across goal, the ball going in off the post and dribbling over the line, as if it wanted to be a part of the incredible scene, itself.
It was a fitting end to the greatest season the club has ever played, they were fourth in the Bundesliga and had reached the Champions League. The scenes were glorious, wild and earth-shakingly loud.
Even Urs Fischer had mentioned that great unspoken word – königsklasse – in his press conference on Thursday. But who would have thought it even possible. At the end, as the stadium sung his name as loud as anyone had ever sung anyone’s name, he took his place among his team on the pitch. This wasn’t his win, he seemed to say. This was ours.
And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
There were few surprises in his starting line up, with the returning Robin Knoche, his rock, at centre back alongside Diogo Leite and Danilho Doekhi, flanked by Christopher Trimmel on the right and Jerome Rousillon on the left. Rani Khedira was in the holding role he has so excelled at all year long, behind Janik Haberer and Aissa Laidouni, with Kevin Behrens and Becker up top.
Union dominant for the first half, but can’t find a way through
The stage was set, the tifo majestic, - the length and height of the Waldseite, it said
If in Europe or in the abyss, endless pride, through the badge on our chest.
It was perfect. The pitch was cup-final green and the volume from the stands deafening.
The opening moments served as a decent simile for the whole of the first half. Behrens found Trimmel in space, but he couldn’t direct the header from his returned cross. Then came a corner, it almost found a marauding Knoche but was headed away. Union had the bit between their teeth, the waves of raucous sound pouring down from the terraces pushing them on. Laidouni robbed Bremen’s danger man, Niclas Füllkrug, easily. So did Leite and Khedira a minute later.
Marco Friedl had to react quickly to stop Becker getting in at the near post to connect with Trimmel’s header from the right after eight minutes. Union won another corner, one of countless set-pieces as they rained balls into the Bremen box. Doekhi headed across goal, the ball eventually dropping for Haberer who was bundled over. There was a moment when it looked like a penalty, indeed it was given by referee Patrick Ittrich, but he consulted his video screen and changed his mind.
It was all Union, Bremen couldn’t get a touch, and was summed up nicely by the way Rousillon turned Leonardo Bittencourt and gave the ball back to Rönnow, as calmly as you like. After half an hour he and Knoche let the ball fly past Füllkrug, again, their communication perfect, despite the din, both with the situation utterly under control. They could do this all day.
Milos Veljkovic hammered Haberer just on the edge of the D after Laidouni’s clever ball inside as Trimmel screamed past him on the overlap. Trimmel lined it up as the Unioner sung of Torsten Mattuschka and his greatest of feats, but it took a deflection and flew wide.
If Haberer was providing the gloss, then Behrens brought the bite. He won every header he went up for. There was a sickening clash of heads as Niklas Schmidt and he came together chasing a fifty-fifty ball in the Bremen box. Schmidt stayed down, hurt, and returned with a green bandage, but would have to go off ten minutes later. Behrens, though, just jumped straight back up and smoothed back his hair. He’s made of strong stuff.
Behrens was immense, winning header after header, and if anyone is evidence of Urs Fischer and his team’s ability to polish the roughest of diamonds then it is he. Stark had to boot him to stop him on the left, he loitered malevolently on the edge of the box for the resulting corner, dashing in to flash a header inches wide of the back post.
Haberer, too, was involved in everything, a delightful flick behind his back leg taking Romano Schmid out of the game entirely showing his confidence, and he only inspired his skipper, who jinked past two on the right with 20 minutes gone.
But despite their pressure, it was still goalless after half an hour, and the game settled into a rhythm, Union pushing, probing, challenging, and Bremen hanging on for dear life.
Frederik Rönnow’s first save came with only a minute to play, from Veljkovic’s stabbed shot. It had resulted from a free kick after Laidouni and Max Philipp clashed near the edge of the Union box, but trickled towards the keeper’s back post, it was elementary, really.
Bremen under fire, Khedira takes the roof off
Five minutes in, Rousillon found a bit of space 20 yards out, he hit a vicious shot at Jiri Pavlenka that the keeper did well to palm wide. But Union kept going. Haberer intercepted a loose pass with his chest, passed to Khedira who found Rousillon who was now everywhere all at once, it seemed.
Becker then thought he’d scored after 54 minutes, but he’d been just offside when he picked up Behrens’ little through ball. Trimmel fought doggedly to beat Schmidt, as they twisted and turned together, fighting over the ball, but Becker’s cross was too high to pose a threat. But Doekhi’s sliding tackle on Phillipp was majestic. Becker then had to be pulled back by Stark to stop him getting down the left. The free kick flew through the box, agonisingly out of reach of Knoche at the back post.
Sven Michel and Paul Seguin came on for Haberer and Laidouni with just under half an hour to go. But the tension started to show in the stands as Knoche was penalised, challenging Pavlenka. But still they sung, on and on, drawing their team towards the Waldseite through volume alone. Ducksch headed Doekhi’s towering header off the line.
Bremen now had everyone back, they tried to kill the time as much as they could, Pavlenka getting a yellow for his dawdling at a goal kick. Bittencourt then got another for his foul on Leite. He took another few moments rolling around after that one too. Union had to be careful not to grow too frustrated.
Josip Juranovic and Jordan came on, with immediate effect, the striker heading the right-back’s cross backwards, just over the bar.
And then it happened. The moment that every single one of the people filling this beautiful stadium will remember for the rest of their lives. The ball came down the right with Becker, he found Michel who then laid it off for the vice-captain, loitering inside the box, an idea playing across his poker face. He side-footed it from an angle, the ball kissing the back post as tenderly as a teenager in love, and rolling back across the goal, all along the line before dribbling over.
The roar was incomprehensible. The stands of the Försterei shook to the very foundations that the fans had sunk themselves a decade and a half ago.
And how fitting that it had been Khedira, the man who had been transformed into the best holding midfielder in the country, the ever-present here, whose new contract had come knowing that he had so much at Union still to achieve.
The love and the pride poured down from the roof of the stadium. It was more inconceivable than Kruse’s goal. More poetic than Awoniyi’s.
And it meant that 1. FC Union Berlin would appear in the Champions League next season.