1. FC Union Berlin: Grill – Trimmel, Jaeckel, Knoche, Doekhi, Gießelmann – Haraguchi (63. Seguin), Khedira, Haberer (88. Öztunali) – Becker (88. Leweling), Siebatcheu (63. Behrens)
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim: Baumann – Akpoguma (42. Kaderábek), Kabak (77.Bicakic), Nsoki - Skov, Geiger, Stiller, Angelino – Bischof (66. Kramaric), Baumgartner – Bebou (67. Dolberg)
Goals: 0:1 Bebou (44.), 1:1 Doekhi (73.), 2:1 Doekhi (89.), 3:1 Leweling (90.+6)
It was impossible to know how Union would start the end of the most truncated vorrunde – the first half of the season – in German history. Especially as it took place in such brutal conditions. It was impossible to know that they’d have to come back from a goal down with the clock ticking against them. That they’d turn in a second half performance of such urgency and vital self-belief when facing disappointment in such a winter storm.
Would the team that played Hoffenheim be the same one that had slumped to the end of 2022 like a boxer on the ropes, battered and beaten-down only through the toil of three competitions that they had given everything in? Or would they be able to re-emerge from the pupae of this insanely long winter break - one that gave them those most life-giving of cures, a holiday, a time to reflect, and a suitable build up into the new year?
Urs Fischer had certainly been far from happy with the last of the six friendlies Union had play, where he said his defence had been sloppy and somewhat complacent. He had said that things would take time to settle, for his side to get used to the grind again, he was scathing, whilst offering up the chance of eternal hope.
Paul Jaeckel took the place of the suspended Diogo Leite in the back three, while Niko Giesselmann slotted back into that of the departed Julian Ryerson as a left wing-back. Genki Haraguchi took the pitch at inside right, as it was once called.
A tough first half. Union miss a penalty. Hoffenheim take the lead.
The game started with a moment of confusion, Haraguchi and Rani Khedira going for the same ball, and the dangerous Robert Skov skipping past Giesselmann, but his cross was as imprecise as the touch which had preceded it. No-one seemed too certain, yet.
Skov then had a little sighter a couple of minutes later when he tried to bend a shot inside the top corner with his left. It took a deflection, the resulting corner leading to a melee in the box. Ihlas Bebou and Tom Bischof in there, a sense of menace and panic all around as the ball bounced around in front of Frederik Rönnow. The corner that came from it sailed harmlessly past everyone and out for a throw.
But, despite the Unioner’s worries, it wasn’t on the side vacated by Ryerson that the first big danger came. After nine minutes Tom Bischof was suddenly put through by Geiger from Hoffenheim’s left. Union had been cut open all too easily, and they breathed a sigh of relief, because he side-footed the ball terribly wide, when all he had to do was feather it home for Hoffenheim to take the lead. He looked mortified.
In Bischof’s defence, the wind was vicious, flakes of snow were already lit up in the ever-brightening floodlights as the afternoon wore on, and it hardly made things on the pitch easier. The conditions would get worse and worse though, and he’ll look back on it tonight as he tries to sleep and wince.
Union broke for the first time just after. Haraguchi found Trimmel, whose cross was volleyed just over by Jordan Siebatcheu. It was a throwback to last year, a warning to Hoffenheim of what they could do when momentum swung Union’s way.
After almost 20 minutes Giesselmann beat Robert Skov and hit a wicked flat, low cross that Jordan flicked cleverly and sweetly past the back post. It lead to chaos. Sheraldo Becker bursting down the same side, Haberer shooting into the crowd packed inside the box.
It was somewhat against the run of play though that Giesselmann hit another ball in after 23 minutes. This one was also dangerous, whirling in the wind, but this time high, deeper, and bending away from goal. The striker, Ihlas Bebou, inexplicably slapped the ball away, he could consider himself lucky not to be sent off there and then. But that wasn’t the end of his good fortune.
Jordan struck his penalty well enough after a staggered run-up, but only hit the base of Baumann’s right hand post.
The game was opening up. Rönnow would have to react well, diving across the face of his goal to his right soon after to palm Skov’s dangerous 25 yard free kick wide.
Both sides tried to keep it on the ground to avoid the wind. Bischof, Christoph Baumgartner and Angelo Stiller knocked it between themselves at one end, while Becker, Janik Haberer and Haraguchi did the same at the other. Geiger then ran decisively from well inside his own half, playing a one-two with Skov, dancing through Union’s midfield.
Again, Rönnow was there to snuff out the danger.
And as such it was with only two minutes of the half to go, and another similar move that opened the scoring for the guests. Skov found space to set Bebou free as he ran into the box from the right. He took a touch and finished firmly and finely to Rönnow’s left, just inside the near post. It was an excellent finish, but Union could be disappointed with giving up the opportunity.
The half ended with Gieselmann and Khedira pleading with the referee, preying, to rescind the yellow card he got for what they were certainly convinced was a fair tackle on Skov, and the sight of both Haberer and Geiger on the ground in the centre circle. Things threatened to spin out of the officials control as the four minutes time added on ran and ran, and the snow fell in ever harder flurries.
Union seize the momentum, scoring three
Union came out a different side after half time. They started furiously, Haraguchi with a determined look in his eye, one cut-back just evading the superb Robin Knoche, and the resulting corner falling to Paul Jaeckel whose shot only went out for another. Then there was another from the left, and one from the right. One from the left, and one from the right.
Trimmel hit a ball into the box, which Haraguchi flicked on. Jordan was sure he had been held back when bursting through. It was wild, a snow globe filled with red and white, of crosses and desperately cleared shots booted into the darkened blizzard skies while all the time the indefatigable Unioner sung Yellow submarine.
Union were like a team possessed. Trimmel, a constant whir of motion on the right, shot over, leaning back as he hit the ball first time. Becker and Haberer contrived to win another corner, this one driven wide by Becker in the end.
Khedira and Geiger almost came to blows in the middle. Haberer shot straight at Bischof. Haraguchi was hauled over by his marker 35 yards out. It was all Union by this point. The captain flicked Giesselmann’s cross wide of the right hand post.
And at the back, Jaeckel tackled superbly, Knoche and Doekhi were always in the right place.
Fischer could see where this was heading and tried to turn the screw, bringing on Kevin Behrens and Paul Seguin. But Hoffenheim have some superb players in their own ranks, as shown by the double entries of Andrej Kamaric and Kasper Dolberg with 25 minutes to go, hoping that the more Union strived, the more gaps they would leave open to exploit at the back.
But Union’s bravery was paying off. Behrens turned provider now, as his neat cross was headed at goal by Giesselmann. It was superbly saved by Baumann, but the resulting corner was headed home by Danilho Doekhi with just over quarter of an hour to go. The man who’d scored the winner against Gladbach with the last kick of the game had scored the equaliser here.
This time, he surely couldn’t do any more.
Fischer was off his bench after that, roaring his players on, flailing his arms like captain Ahab into the face of the storm, his face contorted as he shouted at his players to keep going, but no-one could hear a word. The volume of the Unioner’s hurricane all around him had become utterly, fearfully deafening.
Behrens saw a chance flash just wide, Giesselmann hit a cross-shot that dropped agonisingly over the bar. Becker shot a ball in from the left that just evaded Behrens.
They were throwing everything at Hoffenheim. The substitute Levin Öztunali and Janik Haberer combined to win another corner.
Which is when Doekhi again rose to power another header home. He’d not left it as late as he had against Gladbach, but the effect was similar, as deafening, as resounding and as glorious. Through force of will, Union had taken the lead. Doekhi would have been forgiven for thinking that this was his moment, and only his.
But all that was before he was upstaged, even if only a little. Öztunali – a man who has toiled through this winter break, who just needed something to fall right for him to justify his exquisite talent on the ball - broke. He slipped a pass through to Jamie Leweling who took a touch and ran on, wondering if he should head for the corner, or for goal. He chose the latter and looked up - it was the 96th minute by this point - he readied himself and finished between Baumann’s legs as calmly as you like.
And with that he’d answered the questions asked about which Union would turn up this time. They’d come back off the ropes, shaken themselves down. They’d come back fighting.
Just like they did before.