Despite a strong first half, and greater possession in the final 20 minutes, 1. FC Union Berlin lost 1-0 to FC Augsburg on saturday afternoon at a stadium they've still never won in, against an opponent fighting manfully for their Bundesliga lives.
FC Augsburg: Koubek – Pedersen, Bauer, Gouweleeuw, Uduokhai – Maier (79. Yeboah), Engels (85. Dorsch), Rexhbecaj, Vargas (79. Gumny) – Beljo (85. Berisha), Demirović (90.+2 Veiga)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović, Jaeckel (78. Michel), Knoche, Doekhi, Roussillon (78. Trimmel) – Laïdouni (69. Schäfer), Khedira, Haberer (69. Leweling) – Becker, Behrens (69. Siebatcheu)
Goal: 1:0 Beljo (53.)
An unwanted opponent
On a cold Wednesday last November Union played their last home game of the year against FC Augsburg. The first half back then was wild, lit up by a superb Kevin Behrens strikers’ header from a corner inside the box, and Sheraldo Becker’s opener that stemmed from a lightning break. He had rounded the keeper and finished from the tightest of angles, from way out near the right-hand touchline, when it looked impossible to do so.
And if they had become a byword for defensive solidity and disciplined solidarity (at that point Union had only conceded 16 goals, since then - including today - they have still only conceded 16 more), in many ways the two goals defined everything about this Union side going forwards that had led them to an improbable second in the table. Sadly, today, things just didn't click however.
But back then, after the final whistle the Waldseite had become a sea of banners, listing the team’s achievements that year - from qualifying for, as well as staying in Europe, to the seven long weeks they’d spent atop of the Bundesliga - and one of them simply bore the legend, “Danke.” It was a powerful proclamation of the fans’ love and pride.
They would watch an absurd winter World Cup with Union in second place, but few would really have thought that Union would be able to keep pace. Well, they did, and this return fixture found Union still in third, with only four games to play. As Urs Fischer repeated over and again, all they had to do was win the next game.
But there was still something niggling at the back of everyone's minds.
Because... Well, if only it wasn’t Augsburg. That draw was a bright patch on Union’s record against their nemeses from the Bavarian / Schwabian hinterlands. They had only ever beaten FCA once, and never away. If ever there was a time... this was it. Instead their negative record here stretches out like the lines on a desert highway.
Fischer had kept his side from last weeks impressive draw with an in-form Leverkusen, accepting only the necessary change of Paul Jaeckel, in for a suspended Diogo Leite, and restoring the man who scored the second in November, Behrens, to the top alongside the man who scored the first, Sheraldo Becker.
Rani Khedira, on his 200th Bundesliga appearance, returned to his former club to his inimitable role as the guradian of the middle of the pitch, behind Janik Haberer and Aissa Laidouni, with Robin Knoche and Danilho Doekhi at the back, flanked by Josip Juranovic and Jerome Rousillon - who it’s hard to believe weren’t even here back in November, such has been the speed they’ve integrated themselves into the side - as the flying full-backs.
FCA start strong, but Union seize control
Augsburg were out of the traps early, Dion Beljo almost latching onto a quick ball over the top almost straight from the kick off, and Frederik Rönnow had to be sharp to come out of his box to clear the danger. Danilho Doekhi then had to head Ruben Vargas’s dangerous ball over his own bar. Knoche, too, then headed Maier’s cross from the right away. Soon afterwards, Knoche got a touch on Emerdin Demirovic’s goalbound shot, deflecting the ball into the ground, taking the sting out of it, and the ball was caught at waist height by Rönnow.
This wasn’t to be a victory parade for Union, Augsburg needed points, too, even if their need was of a diametrically opposed nature, and the game became a battle for control of the centre ground, with hard challenges being launched into from both sides, and little space presenting itself through the middle
At fierst Rousillon seemed to carry on from where he left off last week. He chased Vargas over fifty yards to herd the winger back on himself towards the centre-spot, as he was the impetus behind Union’s earliest attacking endeavours, such as when Union broke after five minutes. He charged onto Haberer’s neat back-flick, but his ball, intended for Becker, looped safely into the hands of Tomas Koubek in Augsburg’s goal. After ten minutes he then darted past a snoozing Engels who pulled him back as he went, earning a yellow card for his troubles.
Union started to assert themselves. They won a corner on the left, Haberer’s somewhat wild shot taking a deflection. It came to Rousillon who laid it off for Laïdouni, whose incisive ball in behind the FCA defence was just ahead of Becker, as he tried to sneak in around the back. After 15 minutes Behrens got his first chance, but flicked his header wide of the left-hand upright.
Things were getting hectic. Doekhi caught Vargas with an elbow after 20 minutes, as both Khedira and Laïdouni were both on the floor, but the referee decided it was purely accidental. The free kick was launched into the box by Juranovic where Behrens made a much better contact this time, his superb header forcing Koubek to save to his right, just nudging the ball onto the inside of the post and out again. Becker saw one shot with his left palmed wide by Koubek, then another with his right hit straight at the keeper when put through by Behrens’ gorgeous knock down, all from a route-one Rönnow heave up front. Haberer drew another save from the Czech stopper just before the stroke of half an hour.
Union were in complete control of the game as the half wound on, but were close to self-imposed catastrophe as Rönnow dallied too long on the ball and Arne Engels pressured him. He tried to clear, all too rushed, but the ball only fell to Beljo, who fortunately shot wide when he had time to pick his spot. The keeper was counting his blessings as the sides went into half time bruised, and goalless.
Augsburg take an early lead, Union struggle to spark back into life
The second half meandered, as opposed to exploding into life as the sun shone down upon the WWK Arena. The Unioner were loud as ever in their corner, but the teams continued to cancel each other out. Laidouni’s clever ball into the box just evaded all Union’s heads, while at the other end Demirovic dawdled on the ball for just long enough to allow Union to cover their backs.
But it would be Augsburg who took the lead, as if out of nowhere, when Beljo managed to get in behind Jaeckel, volleying Vargas’s ball in from the inside right past Rönnow.
Augsburg were roused – Doekhi did well to get back and rob Engels as they broke again, and Union struggled to get their momentum back, their passes failing to find the target all too often, their runs regularly spotted and marked by dogged and resolute opponents. Demirovic then took the ball past Doekhi, but shot wide of Rönnow’s left-hand post. Beljan clipped a ball past the top right corner when Demirovic had just ran past him on the overlap, offering up an option. Arne Meier shot over the bar.
Fischer brought on Jordan Siebatcheu, Jamie Leweling and Andras Schäfer for Behrens, Haberer and Laidouni with 25 minutes to go in a bid to turn the tide, hoping to inject some dynamism to his side, but, try as Union might, still Augsburg posed a threat at the other end. Demirovic headed wide from Pedersen’s cross. Vargas shot at Rönnow from outside the box.
And when Union had the ball Augsburg moved back into impeccable, parallel lines, stopping any attempted breaks in their tracks, forcing Union to cut back on themselves all too often, to retain possession but also rendering themselves toothless.
Fischer made his final changes with ten minutes to go, throwing on Sven Michel and the captain, Christopher Trimmel, but Union were banging their heads against a brick wall.
Leweling tried to break through, he cut in from the right and shot, but it flew just over the bar with fifteen minutes to go. Becker’s cross sailed into the arms of Koubek; Jordan bundled Max Bauer over when trying to get on the end of Knoche’s cross. He then headed Trimmel’s cross over with under five minutes to play. The captain hit one from the wing into Koubek’s arms with time almost up, and bent another towards the back post which was also greedily claimed by the keeper.
It wasn't through a lack of effort, more a simple lack of sparkle. It can happen, as Laidouni said, "Sometimes you give everything and still lose." A disappointed Fischer echoed his sentiments, but rued the missed chances in the first half.
And after the referee put the whistle to his lips and called an end to Union’s labours, the players trooped over to their magnificent fans in the sunshine in the corner of this functional stadium, their heads sunken, their faces long. But despite the loss their place in the table remained remarkable, and all those things the fans had thanked them for last November remained as relevant, as impressive as ever.
It was just... It was just another game against Augsburg.