1. FC Union Berlin lost 3-0 at home to the high-flying VfB Stuttgart on Saturday afternoon, dropping to 14th in the table. They had come back at their guests, particularly during a furious second half, and they were far from being completely outplayed. But it was the first half goal from Serhou Guirassy, followed by those from Katompa-Mvumpa Silas and Deniz Undav, as they desperately tried to find a way back into the game, that would prove decisive.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel, Doekhi, Knoche (81. Hollerbach), Leite, Gosens – Tousart (46. Král), Khedira (63. Laïdouni), Haberer (46. Becker) – Volland (46. Fofana), Behrens
VfB Stuttgart: Nübel – Rouault, Anton, Zagadou (82. Stenzel), Mittelstädt – Stiller, Karazor, Millot (82. Jeong) – Leweling (69. Silas), Guirassy (29. Undav), Führich (69. Ito)
Goals: 0:1 Guirassy (16.), 0:2 Silas (81.), 0:3 Undav (88.)
Following the final whistle of a tough afternoon, Robin Knoche chose to focus on the positives. After all, Union hadn't given up in a game against a team on top of their game, they hadn't slunk off into the night.
But they've had a hard time this season, and this game against Stuttgart was reflective of it, somewhow. Urs Fischer had said before how difficult it had been, not being able to field the same side in the league twice this season. His Union, after all, and all their attendant successes have been built not only upon solidarity and that refusal to know when they’re beaten, but also on continuity and consistency. It had to happen at some point, of course, but he would have been happy to see the return of Knoche at centre-half, replacing Leonardo Bonucci in the middle of the back three between Diogo Leite and Danilho Doekhi on saturday.
They were flanked by Robin Gosens and Christopher Trimmel, on the left and right respectively; ahead of a Frederik Rönnow who again travelled to play for Denmark during the international break, and again had to sit on the bench, enduring.
But as Knoche has been important, it was the return of the talismanic Rani Khedira that had pleased the coach and the Unioner alike the most as his name was announced before kick off. We are now in mid-October, and he hadn’t played a single minute in the Bundesliga following his injury against Astoria Walldorf in the cup.
He was sat, back in the middle where he pulls the strings and sets the tone, behind Lucas Tousart and Janik Haberer, the craftsman and the blade.
Up top Fischer had chosen to go with a brand new German international, Kevin Behrens, and one who’s already played 15 times for his country but never yet started a game for Union, Kevin Volland.
Guirassy scores, inevitably. Union lacking the final touch
The game started with a bang, even if not in terms of a certain fluidity of movement from either side. Fischer said later that "Nothing went right in the first half. We weren't aggressive enough against the ball and didn't have much of a grip," and it would be hard to argue with the boss.
The ball, indeed, barely had time to roll.
Haberer caught Atakan Karazor after Union had pushed Stuttgart back through the double pressing of the double Kevins up front, and Leite’s tackle on the in-form Serhou Guirassy in the centre-circle; before he also took the returning Jamie Leweling’s boot off from behind.
Union’s midfielder held his hands up, as did their centre back, but they were clearly laying down a marker. As did Khedira when he made the most typical, trademark of tackles in the centre circle on a Leweling who flitted across the pitch, from right to left, keen to make an impression on his old stomping ground.
Dan-Axel Zagadou clattered Behrens after five minutes, but Doekhi couldn’t get anything on Trimmel's free kick. As it took Gosens and Leite to clear up from Leweling after Guirassy’s clever ball out right. Shortly after it took Leite to tackle Karazor before he could cross from Stuttgart’s right. The game was far from flowing, and Stuttgart had far more of the ball, but there were moments to give Union cause for optimism such as when Gosens found himself in space on the left, out in the sunshine, only just overhitting his long pass in the direction of Volland.
But it would mean little as Guirassy headed home after only 15 minutes, continuing an astonishing run of form. It all came from Anthony Rouault, who whipped the ball in for the Guinea international to head home his 14th goal of the season inside the far post.
In a start where chances were few and far between on both sides, he had made the difference. It was his first of the match, but would also be his last, as he was forced off the field after half an hour having picked up a knock.
The guests moved the ball about with confidence after that, Enzo Milot dovetailing with Angelo Stiller and Chris Führich as Union tried to find a way through. Behrens made himself available, holding the ball up for Haberer, nodding it on towards Volland, but nothing was coming off, even when Tousart tussled with Max Mittelstädt in the Stuttgart box after 25 minutes, when Trimmel set himself for set-pieces, or when Gosens had to be stopped by a combination of Angelo Stiller and Karazor as he went on a diagonal run through the middle.
Stuttgart weren’t afraid of giving it out, either. Leite had been superb, but was growing frustrated at his treatment. Haberer too squared up to Roualt after he had been caught on the achilles for the third time in a row. The yellow card he received seemed grossly unfair and it showed. Leweling left Gosens on the floor in a heap, holding his face.
Stuttgart were the better side though as the half wore on, and showed in flashes why they are challenging at the top of the league, even without their main man. Leweling saw Führich’s cross from the left flash past his outstretched toes as it missed everyone in the six yard box and went out for a throw. And even the returning heroes, with so much weight on their shoulders, even looked a little ring-rusty, if with good reason. Khedira jabbed Volland’s pass over the Stuttgart backline to no-one and Knoche passed back to Rönnow with a sudden flash of panic so unlike the man, with just minutes to play as Union were pushed all the way back to goal from the half way line.
Tousart blazed over from distance, impatiently, following a clever ball inside from Gosens. Gosens then had to hold his head as his through ball to Behrens was intercepted with five minutes to play and the gap he had suddenly seen closed in front of him like a vipers’ jaws. Trimmel’s ball into the box was claimed easily by Alexander Nübel in time added on.
Though the fans hadn’t given a moment’s pause, Union hadn’t yet created many chances of note as the referee, Bastian Dankert, blew up for half time.
Fischer rings in the changes, Stuttgart counter towards the end
Fischer made three changes straight away, bringing on Alex Kral, Sheraldo Becker and David Datro Fofana for Tousart, Volland and Haberer, desperate to shift the momentum, to try and add some of the missing bite to Union’s play going forwards as Becker and Fofana flanked Behrens in a trident.
It brought immediate rewards as Becker tore down the right. Behrens nodded down his deep cross and it took the brave Nübel to floor Fofana to stop him lifting the ball over him as he rushed out of goal.
But Stuttgart came back, Leweling bending a shot wide of Rönnow’s left hand post as he fell backwards.
Becker then saw his dangerous cross cleared over the bar by the excellent Waldemar Anton following Leite and Fofana’s combination in the middle. Leweling charged down Becker’s drive following two Trimmel corners, and the game opened up as the sun burst through over the roof of the main stand and the Unioner roared in support of their side.
Rönnow made a superb, point-blank stop from Leweling on the hour, as he did later from Führich, but by that point Union were in the ascendancy, if their shooting lacked the precision the occasion now demanded; Kral shot wide, Fofana’s ball towards Behrens was cleared desperately. Hiroki Ito had to drag back Fofana as he shredded him for pace on the right. Dan-Axel Zagadou cleared Trimmel’s ball from the same wing with fifteen minutes to play and Union now pushing everyone forwards
And the biggest chance came with 15 minutes to play when Fofana shot wide and high having been played in by a superb Becker ball from the left, when it seemed all he had to do was finish with the side of his foot. The move had all been started by Aissa Laidouni, having come on for Khedira, the bit between his teeth.
Union were pushing so hard there were gaps, unfortunately, starting to gape at the back, and it was in one of them, on the inside left channel, that appeared Silas Katomba-Mvumpa with ten minutes to play. He took a touch inside, turned Rönnow inside out and finished coolly with his right to make it 2-0 for the guests.
Union strove onwards, refusing to believe their eyes when looking at the scoreboard. It took a double save, Ito making the definitive clearance, to deny Union with five minutes to play, they were giving everything and you could see it in the faces of the players, just as you could from the voices from the stands.
But Leite was almost robbed by Undav as the ball got stuck under his studs, and couldn’t get his clearance further than the tireless Karazor. He found Wooyeong Jeong who crossed where Undav took advantage of the chaos in the box, heading home to make it 3-0.
It was somehow all summed up as Mittelstädt stopped another twisting, turning attempt by Fofana to create something out of nothing. Nübel came out and roared at his team-mate, they high fived, their doggedness having matched their finishing in front of goal.
But it felt like the stands were as packed as they were before kick off still twenty minutes after the final whistle. Knoche said after the final whistle how his side will "remain calm and objective, and tackle the tasks together", before echoing the sentiment and the actions of all those who stayed.
"If I saw resignation somewhere, I would be worried, but that's not the case."
And he meant it. if the fans will stay til the bitter end, so will Union.