1. FC Union Berlin ran out thoroughly convincing winners in their first competitive match of the 2023/24 season, beating Astoria-Walldorf 4-0 on a beautiful Sunday evening in Baden-Württemberg. Though they faced a side fighting manfully in the first half it was settled with goals from Robin Knoche, Sheraldo Becker, Diogo Leite (his first ever for the club) and was capped with a majestic, vicious Janik Haberer volley.
FC-Astoria Walldorf: Idjakovic – Müller (67. Onos), Hauk, Stich, Grimmer – Lässig – Barry, Politakis (82. Krüger), Waack (75. Safranek), Fahrenholz (75. Celik) – Carl (67. Calhanoglu)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović (68. Trimmel), Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon – Khedira (78. Král) , Laïdouni (58. Haberer) – Fofana, Behrens (68. Siebatcheu), Becker (58. Aaronson)
Goals: 0:1 Knoche (29., FE), 0:2 Becker (38.), 0: 3 Diogo Leite (41.), 0:4 Haberer (80.):
It is hard to believe that only seven years ago Norbert Düwel’s 1. FC Union Berlin were knocked out of the DFB Pokal by the Regionalliga West’s Viktoria Köln, despite taking a 1-0 lead through Collin Quaner. It seemed the way of things, the inglorious nature of the Cup, if you will. There had been times when the first round spankings by Werder Bremen and Eintracht were to be taken in their stride, they were, after all, the big boys. But to lose to Viktoria?
Well, the Süddeutsche Zeitung said merely the next day that “Union had lost again in the first round of the cup,” and though they went on to say that it was “surprising” their tone was one of a complete and utter lack of surprise. Union had been knocked out in the first round the year before by Heidenheim, too.
These things of course can happen. Urs Fischer said in one of those glorious footballisms on Thursday, “the cup is the cup”, and everyone present knew exactly what he meant.
He wasn’t going to underestimate FC-Astoria Walldorf. One of the things that has defined his astonishing reign at Union has been his laser-guided focus only on the next week and the next opponents.
And it showed in the team he put out, with a dependable backline behind an intimidating attack. Frederik Rönnow was behind a classic back three / five, (depending on who’s got the ball) of Jerome Rousillon, Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche, Danilho Doekhi and Josip Juranovic. But then this is where even the redoubtable Fischer allowed himself a little experimental flourish, because he played only two midfielders in Rani Khedira – recovered from the knock he took in training during the week – and Aissa Laidouni. They were to sweep up behind the terrifying prospect of Sheraldo Becker, David Datro Fofana and Big Kevin Behrens.
It looked less like a throw of the dice, however, as a statement of intimidating intent. It looked like the opposite of taking chances, just because he didn’t want another Viktoria on his hands.
Walldorf not without their dangers, but Knoche, Becker and Leite score.
Fischer – constantly chewing, and all in black - sat on a white plastic garden chair, the Unioner in front of him packing one half of the temporary stand, and a wood behind the union goal to his left, watched on impassively as Union started with plenty of the ball. but he said later they semmed to be lacking a certain edge.
It had taken only five minutes for them to have their first sorties into the box, both coming from Becker down the left; crosses delivered after a predictable burst (you might know he’s coming, but stopping him is another matter entirely), and cross towards the head of Fofana. The second of them lead to a corner that Doekhi headed powerfully towards goal, but it was punched away with just enough necessary certainty by Luis Idjakovic in the Walldorf goal.
Union looked good, but they weren’t quite clicking. Not yet, at least.
Doekhi dealt with Marcel Carl, named before the match by Fischer as the host’s danger man, with the minimum of fuss at the other end, but he had more problems with Boubacar Barry, who shot twice in short succession. The first went just wide of the near post from a tight angle, the second held onto by a Rönnow, diving to his left.
Indeed, Astoria weren’t to be sniffed at. They had periods where they held the ball with patience, and no lack of technical ability, knocking it around midfield with a relaxed ease which belied their status going into the game.
But Fofana is a man who thinks only of the goal, who plays on his instincts, just as he thrives through his low centre of gravity and the quickest of feet. After 15 minutes he charged through the midfield, laid the ball off and blazed the return over before Behrens could get onto the end of it as he wanted. But it wasn’t by far. There was a moment when he shook off four defenders on the right like they were wasps around his beer. He beat Mario Müller with a single flash of his laces.
After half an hour he once again cut inside and glided past poor Müller like he wasn’t there at all.
Union were stepping up. But Becker flashed a header from Juranovic’s deep cross wide, and Fischer would lament the chances missed at this point after the final whistle. He thought that it could cost them dearly.
After 25 minutes Max Waak picked up a ball in midfield that had somehow slipped through the middle. He slipped it to Carl who shot from outside the box, a daisy cutter, but struck well, and it flew just wide of Rönnow’s left hand post. Despite their dominance of the ball, the hosts had managed to reduce Union to vagaries up front and had even created their own chances.
But there was always the thought, simmering away, that things would fall into place for Union.
It came when Juranovic brought the ball down artfully on his toe, he turned and found Fofana who was brought down by Barry, just a millisecond too slow for the Union striker. Knoche stepped up and stroked the resulting penalty home with the greatest of ease to Idjakovic’s right.
Then it was two. Fofana bustled into the box from the right where Behrens, after a delightful first touch, used his strength and his nous to hold off Theodoros Politakis – well, he didn’t so much hold him off as barge him away with a granite shoulder - before looking up and squaring the ball to Becker. Though falling backwards, all the Dutchman had to do was keep the ball on target.
Within minutes it was three. Leite started the move... just as he finished it. Union were now rampant, and he had pushed up the pitch with abandon. The Portuguese found Becker, who found Behrens in turn, clearly enjoying and flourishing in his new role as spearhead, and continued his run into the box. Leite picked up the pass near the penalty box and lashed it home, the ball rising all the way and still doing so as it hit the back of the net.
Having signed permanently for Union in the summer, it was his first ever goal for the club, and he strolled off the pitch after the whistle for half time, trying to hide the smile on his face.
The second half slips by, Haberer enlivens it with a volley
The start of the second half was slightly delayed as the Unioner erupted in a shower of smoke and balloons, confetti and streamers. And Union's players seemed to want to keep up the party mood. They were utterly in control and perfectly relaxed. Becker lifted a ball towards Behrens in the box almost immediately with the simplest of scoops, which he headed wide.
Tim Fahrenholz had to hold back Rousillon as he beat him down the left, but the pair immediately shook hands as the referee blew for the foul. They knew it was all he could do to stop him.
Though they were already well beaten by this point, Walldorf never gave in. Rönnow saved from Müller; Politakis made a good stop on the run from Behrens and would have a decent drive from 30 yards out with 20 minutes to play. Then Lennart Grimmer had a go from the edge of the box, but it was all mostly for show by this point. The game was long past competitive, and Fischer took the chance to return to his favoured two up top with the withdrawal of Becker for Janik Haberer, and giving a competitive debut to Brenden Aaronson. He would soon after bring on Christopher Trimmel for Juranovic and Jordan Siebatcheu for Behrens.
In fact almost everything had gone their way, at least until they saw the unhappy sight of Rani Khedira limping off, his right thigh bound, his face grimacing, following a challenge by Barry.
The Union players put it to the back of their minds, knowing there was still time for the odd flourish. A bit of icing to go on the cake. Jordan found an inch of space in the box, his shot rebounding off a stray limb, but it went only as far as Haberer whose first-time volley was a curious mixture of being both pretty as a picture and utterly, devastatingly violent.
It was perfectly struck, his head still, his balance like that of a ballet dancer, and the keeper didn’t stand a chance.
Fischer did the rounds as his players left the pitch in the glorious late summer sunshine, his face still a study in steely eyed focus. Even though it had been a pretty relaxed win in the end, he said that he was a bit disappointed in the way Union had let their tempo drop as the game was won. But that’s the thing, he won’t countenance any over-confidence, any deviance from the path he has laid out. Which is why this wasn’t a repeat of that game against Viktoria Köln.
By then, anyway, his thoughts had already moved onto Saturday, and the Bundesliga opener against Mainz.
Their job here was done. After all, in the end, they just had to win. Because, as he had said before... well, "the cup is is the cup."