1.FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Gießelmann, Leite, Knoche, Jaeckel, Ryerson (Trimmel) – Haberer (Schäfer), Khedira (c), Haraguchi (Thorsby) – Becker (Michel), Siebatcheu (Behrens)
FSV Mainz 05: Zentner – Leitsch, Hach, Bell – Aaron, Kohr, Lee (Fulgini), Widmer (c) – Onisiwo (Burgzorg), Ingvartsen (Mustapha), Stach (Barreiro)
A battling first half:
Written off before kick-off as the kind of platitude that coaches always trot out before games such as this, Urs Fischer’s perceptiveness had been underestimated. He had being saying like a mantra, over and again, about the similarities between his 1.FC Union and Mainz 05. He’d talked endlessly before about the need to match Union's hosts in intensity, in strength and in pace. He’d said that it would be hard out there, that victory or a loss in Rheinland would hinge on the smallest of things.
Or, as Bob Dylan once said, a very long time ago, on a simple twist of fate.
Fischer was, of course, right. He usually is.
And as such it was perhaps somewhat surprising to see Christopher Trimmel on the bench, with Julian Ryerson switching to the right and Niko Gießelman at left wing-back. Maybe Fischer had an eye on the soul-sapping heat, on the shuttling, endless up and down nature of the job his team would need to do, especially on the flanks.
The game started as it would continue. Mainz’s Maxim Leitsch got a yellow after five minutes, Widmer exchanged a couple of shoves with Sheraldo Becker. It was tough out there, hot and battling, Paul Jaeckel and Rani Khedira snapped at the heels of Lee. Robin Knoche tussled with Karim Onisiwo.
Becker and Siebatcheu swapped sides, pushing and pulling the Mainz back four, testing them, and, when back on the left Sheraldo’s pace tested Bell, Union were keen to hit early balls to the striker.
Then, after 25 minutes Frederic Rönnow had to be on his toes to palm away a speculative long range effort from Lee out on the left – and it was the first of many - but he watched the ball all the way.
Union’s best chance in the first half was the superb Niko Gießelmann’s header back across goal that dropped agonisingly, just wide of the far post, just too deep for Siebatcheu to be able to shake the phalanx of markers around him, wrapping him in their web like spiders on a moth, after half an hour.
And opposite him, Ryerson was agitating on the right, up and down, up and down, scrapping with Widmer, switching the play from flank to flank.
Union used their full complememnt of variations at set-pieces, missing the delivery of their usual captain, corners were often being played short or low to the edge of the box, Union tried to cut through the resolute Mainz lines using their minds. But it was also an elbows out kind of game.
Gießelmann superbly stopped Aaron after half an hour, diving to repel his cross from the corner flag, the resulting set-piece punched a mile away by Rönnow.
Then came a brief moment of peace in amongst the blood and thunder. Paul Jaeckel suddenly found an inch of space, but Kohr was already on the floor after a challenge with Haraguchi. Jaeckel shrugged his shoulders, launching the ball away into touch. Such space couldn’t be there by chance, could it? He knew it immediately.
As the seconds ticked down towards the break Knoche could still muster the technique to dance around Onisiwo and the ex-Unioner, Marcus Ingvartsen, in his own box. It was a brief flash of style, but one that belied the nature of the game.
Mainz with more of the ball, the battle continued:
The second half began with more of the same, with Mainz slightly in the ascendancy. But Haraguchi beat Kohr on the outside, Stach on the inside, squaring for Gießelmann who’s shot sailed just over the bar at the back post. The Japanese midfielder found Ryerson with space, but his shot, cutting in with his left from outside the box flew wide. He shook his head and went back to his flank, to continue his selfless task.
Both sides were reduced to shooting from range. The only time Mainz found a little space in the Union box, Stach dallied for too long, his feet a little behind his brain.
But the game started to open up, just a little. Haraguchi again managing to find a little gap for Becker on the left, Ingvartsen for Mainz found himself with room to breathe on the left
The substitute Marlon Mustapha danced into the Union box, past Knoche, but his shot with the outside of his boot rolled wide, too.
Fischer was on his toes, pointing and whistling, a puppeteer with no strings, sneaking a bottle of drink to Ryerson when he could, urging his team on, telling them to concentrate, to never give up. He rolled his dice in the last quarter of an hour, bringing on Sven Michel and Christopher Trimmel. His look was withering, utterly disbelieving, when Widmer caught the substitute Andras Schäfer.
Angelo Fulgini and Delano Burgzorg carved out a final chance for Mainz with the time running away, but Union stood resolute, a forest of defenders standing tall in the box, their roots sunk deep into the baking Rheinland turf.
And when it all came down to it, Fischer had been right all along. He’d said that no-one liked going to Mainz, as did his opposite number, opposing head-coach, Bo Svensson. He would be happy with the point, knowing that with a little bit of luck either way, such games can turn very quickly.
Rani Khedira, who also knows a little about such things, echoed his boss after the game. He said Union could be happy with the point.
The Unioner could return mostly content. For it was just lacking that little twist of fate.