Having started superbly, Union were held to a 1-1 draw by a determined Bochum side, who equalised Josip Juranovic’s wonderful free kick, through Kevin Stöger’s second half penalty. Their tasks were made all the more difficult as Paul Jaeckel was sent off with more than half an hour to go.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović, Jaeckel, Knoche, Doekhi, Roussillon (86. Gießelmann) – Laïdouni (65. Leite), Khedira, Haberer (80. Thorsby) – Becker (86. Pantovic), Behrens (86. Siebatcheu)
VfL Bochum: Riemann - Ordets, Masovic, Schlotterbeck (14. Heintz) - Osei-Tutu (75. Gamboa), Osterhage, Stöger, Soares – Asano (88. Zoller), Hofmann, Antwi-Adjei (88. Holtmann)
Goals: 1:0 Juranović (45. +2), 1:1 Stöger (55.)
Union’s modern history has dovetailed somewhat with that of VfL Bochum’s. Take the hair-raising 2-2 draw on the last game of the 2. Liga season, which meant Union would only come third in the table, and with it face a play-off against Stuttgart to get to the Bundesliga. As a storm howled down upon the hundreds watching on a big screen at the Alte Försterei, it seemed like a kick to the gut, that result. It physically hurt, somehow, and felt far worse than this draw between the sides.
Or take the final game of last season, when Taiwo Awoniyi’s winner with just two minutes to go (alongside his and Grischa Prömel’s exits) left not a dry eye in the house, happy in the knowledge that Union would play in the Europa league. That one will go down in history. Certainly more so than this.
But it wasn’t always that way. Union have played Bochum more than almost anyone else from the former West Germany, much of which was seemingly spent in the mid-table of the 2. Liga, a parade of 2-1's on grey days like today (though the memory does play tricks when casting back to what feels like a lifetime ago), when the idea of both being in the top flight together was the stuff of strangest fancy.
But Urs Fischer had been careful to not talk down his opponents. If Union had their eyes on third place in the table, he knew that Bochum, too, were fighting for something, even if at the other end of the league.
Accordingly he made only two changes to the side who had performed so creditably against Dortmund last weekend, bringing in Aissa Laidouni and Jerome Rousillon for Morten Thorsby and Niko Giesselmann. Paul Jaeckel retained his place in the back three, as did Kevin Behrens alongside Sheraldo Becker up front. Rani Khedira, as always, was the anchor of midfield behind Janik Haberer and Laidouni.
Union’s superb start, Juranovic’s gorgeous free kick.
Union started in a frenzy. Behrens went down in the box, Khedira, too, after a Rousillon cross from the left. It was nothing, just bodies colliding at pace, but Juranovic hit the ensuing corner to the edge of the box where Danilho Doekhi flashed a volley over the bar. Behrens then nodded down for Becker who laid the ball off, again, for Doekhi. Manuel Riemann, in Bochum's goal, was equal to his scuffed shot.
There was a charging header by Jaeckel as he came out towards the halfway line, a superb sliding tackle by Haberer on Jordi Osei-Tutu, and a bullish run with the ball at his foot from Laidouni. He was barged over but the referee waved play on and the Tunisian international got up without a word.
It was a sign of Union’s intensity, as was the call and reponse from the packed out terraces. “Eisern...” "...Union" they roared. It felt big, this one.
Rönnow had to be sharp to stop a long ball over the top from being dashed on to by Christopher Antwi-Adjei, but he did so with the minimum of fuss. He then held Antwi-Adjei’s long, searching free kick easily, despite the swirling, buffetting, fine rain in the sky. Riemann at the other end had to punch a Becker cross away with less certainty as Behrens was looming, his mind fresh with his goal last weekend, and having already scored more than any other Unioner this year.
After quarter of an hour there was a pause as Keven Schlotterbeck went down in agony, holding his knee. It looked bad for the former Unioner. He limped off, to applause from all sides of the stadium, to be replaced by Dominique Heintz, still on Union’s books, but on loan in the Ruhr.
It was all Union for the majority of the half. Behrens flicked another header just wide of the back post from near the penalty spot after Juranovic’s cross. Jaeckel made another superb headed pass to Juranovic on 23 minutes, his zipped through ball towards Becker just having too much pace on it for the rain-slicked pitch; but the idea was good and the break was as quick as they come.
After half an hour Behrens tried to pass to Becker on the turn but over-hit it this time. If anything Union were trying to too hard to rush things, as if stung by the recent criticism of their first half displays.
Becker put his palms down. Be cool, he said. There’s time, he said. He was right.
But still Union pressed and they harried, and they gave Bochum all sorts of problems. Laidouni was everywhere; Juranovic’s battle with Antwi-Adjei superb; Becker drifting wide and Behrens leading the line. Rousillon would hit the bar after Becker’s clever switched ball out left, his cross / shot leaving Riemann not knowing whether he was coming or going. He then did superbly to get in front of Philipp Hoffman to head an in-swinging cross away, diving at full stretch. He did even better with a sliding tackle on Takuma Asano as the referee went to blow his whistle on the half.
But, Union had already taken the lead by then. And what a goal it was. With the clock already reading 45 minutes played, Laidouni was brought down by Patrick Osterhage ten yards outside the box. Juranovic and Rousillon stood over the ball, talking behind cupped hands, making plans. Becker and Khedira stood in front of the wall, forming a diversion, but Juranovic needed none of that.
He hit the ball with pace and power and bent it inside the back post, giving a diving Riemann no chance.
Bochum equalise, Jaeckel sees red.
Union looked so confident as they re-started after the break, they started making pretty patterns, Juranovic skipping past kevin Stöger and Erhan Masovic on the halfway line. Rousillon and Haberer combined neatly on the left. Even Jaeckels' chested clearance from Stöger's attempted through ball was cushioned so well it was as if he left rose petals behind him on the pitch. And when Bochum tried to get the ball up high into the box either he or Knoche or Doekhi were always there to head clear from danger.
But those balls kept coming in, now, with more regularity and better accuracy than anything the guests had delivered in the first half.
And then came the shock, Bochum got a penalty after 54 minutes as Laidouni brought down Ivan Ordets in the box. Stöger stepped up to screaming whistles all around while Rönnow danced on the line, his arms out wide. But there was little the keeper could do as he hit it hard and true to his right. Suddenly, Bochum were back in the game, a situation only worsened by Paul Jaeckel’s second yellow card ten minutes into the half for a foul on Osterhager before the hour was out.
Fischer made an immediate change, bringing on Diogo Leite for Laidouni.
Union came back at Bochum, giving their all. And they thought they’d scored after a lovely Janik Haberer nutmeg past a hypnotised Masovic. He found Laidouni who slipped Behrens in, his finish at the near post brutal and perfectly placed.
But he was an inch offside.
The Unioner roared mercilessly when the decision finally came through.
It was swinging both ways now. Bochum, a man up and buoyed by their goal and their advantage, Union aggrieved, determined, and with the bit between their teeth. Asano tried to shoot inside the box but only found it packed with bodies. Doekhi had to be at his sharpest to stop Antwi-Adjei. Then Heintz nipped the ball of Becker as he prepared to shoot with 20 minutes to play. Rousillon was a blur of action on one side – clearing the ball off the line with ten minutes to go - as Juranovic was his equal on the other.
And still Union wouldn’t give up, they fought like demons. Behrens shot over with Riemann all at sea from outside the box. Rönnow saved from Hoffman’s header at goal. Doekhi tackled Antwi-Adjei superbly, then stopped Hoffman from getting a chance to head at goal.
Then came Union’s biggest chance, as Behrens missed a golden opportunity with five minutes to go after Becker left Heintz for dead, running onto Juranovic’s ball down the right. The cross was perfect, he put it on a plate, but Behrens headed wide.
It was both of their last touches before coming off, joined by Rousillon heading towards the bench, with Jordan Siebatcheu, Niko Giesselmann and Milos Pantovic - who scored but also missed a penalty against his former club in the last encounter between the sides - coming on.
But the last minutes were played out as Bochum camped inside the Union half, and the Unioner, worn out, bloodied, their strength sapped by a wet pitch and from being a man down for more than half an hour.
Fischer praised his side's attacking play in the first half, and their character for much of the second, calling the sending up a "wake-up call". But he was also keen to point out Bochum's strengths, how they, too, had fought in a stadium that few away sides leave as happy as they will have.
One of the final sights of the day was Rani Khedira running fifty yards to chase a lost cause up top, the living embodiment of the spirit in this side, of the fight they have.
At the end, a point didn’t feel like enough, somehow, after all of the expectation. But they'll wake up in the morning knowing that it was one of the hardest earned ones they’ve got all year.