1. FC Union beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 1-0 through a superb, second half Sheraldo Becker goal, set up by Jerome Rousillon. Though it was the striker who would receive all the plaudits, it was an excellent, organised team performance, and their dream of European qualification remains tangible.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow - Rousillon (Trimmel), Leite, Knoche, Doekhi, Juranovic - Haberer (Pantovic), Khedira, Laidouni (Thorsby) - Behrens (Jordan), Becker (Michel)
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Omlin - Scally (Lainer), Itakura, Elvedi, Bensenbaini (Netz) - Weigl, Kone, Hofmann, Neuhaus (Ngoumou), Stindl (Plea) - Thuram (Friedrich)
Goals: 1-0 Becker (60)
Union have good memories of Borussia Mönchengladbach. From the mythical Cup semi-final in 2001 - and Ronny Nikol’s bottle blonde barnet, and his roars to the Waldseite as he tucked away the winning penalty - to the astonishing denouement to October’s last league clash when Danilho Doekhi took the roof off the Alte Försterei with his last-touch-of-the-match winner.
They hadn’t lost to their storied hosts since a 4-1 mauling at the Alte Försterei three years ago. Five games. It is a remarkable run against a side who occupy one of the highest places in the German footballing pantheon, and they showed few signs of wanting to give up that record on Sunday evening. Union were disciplined and organised, they were also keen going forwards and capped things with a lovely goal.
Urs Fischer had cause for optimism before kick off, but then, naturally, he refused to suggest that Union were were anything other than outsiders for this one, praising Gladbach’s speed and their ability to play between the lines. He's not a man to look further than the next task immediately at hand; he's not a man who will risk the possibilities opening up to his side with every game to the chance of hubris.
But he made a single change to the side who had fought their way through half an hour a man down against Bochum last week, with Diogo Leite returning for the suspended Paul Jaeckel next to Robin Knoche and Danilho Doekhi, with Jerome Rousillon and Josip Juranovic on the flanks. Rani Khedira, as ever, the ink still drying on the new extension of his contract, was holding the midfield alongside Aissa Laidouni and Janik Haberer.
Few knew when he first arrived from Augsburg that Khedira would develop into the player he has, into one of the finest central midfielders in the land. When he talked of ending his career at Union, he was setting hearts a-flutter across Köpenick.
Sheraldo Becker and Kevin Behrens, meanwhile, were given the chance to continue their partnership up front, Fischer having dismissed talk of Behrens’ miss against Bochum. The striker had his full confidence, he said, preferring to focus on the superb finish he had ruled out for offside previously.
Behrens had good memories of Gladbach, too, of course. He scored the opener in that wild encounter back in October.
A cautious first half remains goalless.
Union started patiently, stroking the ball around the back three, easily, but cautiously too as the smoke from the Gladbach end billowed over a pitch, already sodden from the heavy rain, which would prove to be increasingly treacherous underfoot as the game went on. They looked to get down the left where Becker got an early cross off into the box, and where Jerome Rousillon gave Jonas Hoffmann a withering look for a tumble near the byline. It wasn't the last such glance we'd see. The two were interchanging positions readily, trying to keep the Gladbach full-back, Joe Scally, guessing.
Becker then skipped past Ko Itakura, drawing a foul, and a yellow card, from the Japanese defender, but Juranovic was yet to get his radar trained, his free kick ballooning out for a goal kick. Later in the half Behrens did something similar as he tried to cross to no avail from the right this time.
Fifteen minutes in, Kouadio Kone hit a speculative long shot that Rönnow claimed with ease, but he had to be careful, making sure to track it all the way into his arms as the ball skipped off the skiddy pitch.
Union’s approach play was fine, but the final ball was still missing. Becker skipped past Itakura again following a neatly played ball from Laidouni, on the right, his every lightning step causing palpitations, but, again, the cross came to nothing.
Union’s first real shot on goal came after 20 minutes as Becker set Behrens free, his shot falling just wide of the near post, but he’d been under the attentions of Nico Elvedi all the way and took a boot to the ankle for his troubles.
A couple of minutes later it was Laidouni again who set Juranovic away this time, but his break had even caught out his teammates, and no-one could get into the box quickly enough to give him an option to pass to.
Laidouni was at the heart of Union’s best moves as they started to dominate as the half wore on. He played a gorgeous pass from the centre circle to Becker that cut the Gladbach defence in two. Becker’s touch clipped off Itakura's boot and looped towards the goal where Jonas Omlin had to react to claw it away before either Behrens could get on the end of it, or it dropped in the goal.
Another, with almost 40 minutes played, was the most delicate of chips over the top that was just ahead of Becker; an elegant back-heel to Behrens left Kouadio Kone looking for the ball in another Bundesland.
Thuram threw himself to floor under the attentions of Laidouni on the edge of the box after half an hour. The Tunisian midfielder was visibly annoyed, but the referee, Martin Petersen, adjudged it to be just outside the box, dead centre, and Bensebaini could only shoot into the wall, and the back of Juranovic, lying behind it for just such an occasion.
Elvedi brought down Becker on the stroke of half time. Juranovic took the free kick from the right, level with the six-yard box, choosing to cut it cleverly back to Becker, but his shot got caught up in the crowd of bodies in the box and the half ended goalless.
Becker’s dream goal lights up the second half
The second half started with a free kick for Gladbach, Khedira having caught Thuram to the left of the box, and Rönnow did well to hold the high looping ball following a deflection, but it was an anomaly. Union had come out after the break superbly, utterly in control of the game. Their hosts were sitting deeper and deeper, inviting them on, and, despite their squad's depths of talent, they were showing a startling lack of imagination and will.
Rousillon flashed a volley over with his left foot following Haberer’s knock-down. He then crossed for Becker whose header skewed off his forehead. Haberer shot and the ball looped up to Behrens who headed into the ground, but it sprung off the turf just wide of the goal.
But then Union took a deserved lead on the hour as Rousillon - a permanent, scurrying, harrying, dynamic presence on the left - chipped a beautiful ball over the top for Becker. Becker watched it all the way as it dropped over his left shoulder, volleying home with his right foot past Omlin.
It was a beautiful goal, from the cleverly, smartly improvised conception to the superbly balanced, cool-headed, technical finish to Omlin’s right, giving the keeper no chance.
Union were not only better going forwards, they snuffed out every Gladbach attempt with certainty. Rani Khedira chased back to rob Kone, Leite got in ahead of Thuram to stop him reaching a cross. Doekhi stood up to Doucoure Mamadou's shot, his hands behind his back just in case. Juranovic turned in his own box, staying cool, and hitting a lovely ball out to Becker when many would have panicked instead.
Monchengladbach’s coach, Daniel Farke, made four changes, desperate to try and drag his side back into things, but it was only partly successful. Thuram headed over with fifteen minutes to play; he then let a cross roll under his foot while in the box with unusual laxity five minutes later. Rönnow saved another misdirected header from the Frenchman with ten minutes to go, and with Gladbach finally putting on a bit of pressure; he was then crowded off the ball by four Union defenders as the clock wound down towards the final whistle.
Fischer too rolled his dice, swapping first Thorsby for the impressive Laidouni, then bringing on Jordan for Behrens, Milos Pantovic for Haberer and Sven Michel for Becker.
Michel thought He’d scored in the final minute as he finished into an empty net following Omlin’s rash decision to go up for a free kick, but he was called offside.
It mattered little anyway in the end.
As Becker came off, Fischer hugged his goal scorer as he went. There have been times when he has hated being substiuted - and shown it when his demands of himself haven’t been fulfilled - but this was different.
Fischer whispered something in his ear, and Becker smiled back at his coach. With only five games to play, they had lead Union back to a remarkable third in the table.