Hertha BSC: Christensen – Pekarik (77. Boateng), Uremovic, Kempf, Plattenhardt – Tousart, Serdar – Lukebakio, Boëtius (69. Niederlechner), Richter, Kanga (61. Ngankam)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel, Deokhi, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon (70. Gießelmann) – Schäfer (46. Seguin), Khedria, Haberer (89. Haraguchi) – Becker (84. Michel), Behrens (70. Siebatcheu)
Goals: 0:1 Doekhi (44.), 2:0 Seguin (67.)
Never before had it seemed like there was so much to separate 1. FC Union Berlin and Hertha BSC - or at least this way around - since the physical boundary that divided them went some 30 years ago. Hertha had enjoyed decades of dominance over Union. Then today found Union were happier, more sure of themselves as a club. They were higher in the league, happier on the pitch, more settled with a system they knew inside out and a clear vision to punch away at the structures and the clubs above them.
But times have changed. And Union's win here, their fifth derby win in a row, cemented that.
The Olympiastadion was filling up already two hours before kick off. The Ostkurve, standing en masse, waiting to see what would happen, especially since the last game they saw here, the 5-0 spanking by Wolfsburg. They were angry and hurt. Their volume showed just as such. But it would lose it edge by the end.
Pockets of red popped up around the cavernous old place like the spots on a heat map. Union's first song was greeted with a chorus of boos. They gave the Hertha players similar treatment.
And it lead to a palpable sense of excitement in the cold air, a sense of anticipation. Though Urs Fischer was careful to say that they couldn’t take this one lightly, thje away side were clear favourites.
What seems like the biggest difference of all though lay not on the pitch. Union have what seemed a coherent transfer policy, a plan, no less.
And one of its newest fruits started on the left hand side, as Jérôme Roussillon lined up in the place where Julian Ryerson had once stood.
However, as much as some things change, the more they stay the same. One of the happiest pieces of news for Union had been the sight of Christopher Trimmel – club captain, icon, ever-present – signing his new deal while away on the Spanish training camp. And there he was again, despite the price tag of his would-be successor, Josip Juranovic.
As would the return of Andras Schäfer in midfield. The young Hungarian had been a revelation until his injury towards the end of the Europa League fixture against Union Royale St. Gilloise. His impish presence a delight, his determination ever present. He lined up behind Kevin Behrens, fresh from his man of the match performance against Bremen, the centre-forward position alongside Sheraldo Becker now his for Jordan Siebatcheu to try and take back.
A bustling game, an unstoppable header
The atmosphere prickled, and the game roared into life from kick off. It was a hectic, breathless start. Hertha trying to unsettle Union from the off, Union waiting to counter. Suat Serdar robbed Schäfer, trying to create an opening. Becker haring onto a Danilho Doekhi long ball out right he could not quite get to in time. Janik Haberer picked up a loose ball and fed Behrens who loped forwards through the middle but the move came to nothing.
Serdar burst past Schäfer, his shot bouncing to Marco Richter who shot into the crowd in the box. Trimmel seized upon the deflection, picking out Becker who drove out left this time.
Then Aka Wilfirede Kanga tried to bicycle kick a cross from the edge of the box but was muscled out of the sky by the imperious Robin Knoche. He landed awkwardly, paying the price of daring flamboyancy.
It was hard out there on the expanses of the huge pitch. Rani Khedira took a kick to the ankle, limping to the side for treatment, wincing. Rousillon’s dangerous ball in from the left to Becker saw Filip Uremovic left in a heap, but the ball flew into the arms of keeper, Oliver Christensen. Trimmel floored Serdar in a 50-50 challenge.
Rousillon hit another good pass, flat and low this time just ahead of Becker after 20 minutes, as he would clear Richter’s cross with the minimum of fuss high and away from the penalty spot when he had to be sure, having to connect perfectly. The Frenchman had an encouraging start, finding himself at centre forward at one point, as a holding midfielder the next.
Becker threw his gloves to the side after 15 minutes, he wouldn’t need them. It was, as Urs Fischer had also predicted before the game, hot enough already down there.
Hertha’s first real chance came after Kanga’s tricky, jinking run, and a clever back heel found Richter who blazed over after 32 minutes. Union broke back, a Trimmel free kick, as predictable as the rising of the sun but just as hard to stop, just flying over the heads of everyone in the Hertha box.
The hosts were seeing more of the ball, if lacking some precision. It took a superb last-ditch tackle from Khedira to stop Jean Paul Boetius from shooting when through after 35 minutes. Their problem was in coming up against a back three in Knoche, Danilho Doekhi and Diogo Leite who could move the ball in the tightest of spaces to each other, who understand each other so well.
Their connection and spirit was underlined best later on when Knoche dismissed Kanga, Leite running over, they high fived, before retreating back into position again.
And Union still posed a threat. Behrens robbed Boetius, Haberer drove, Rousillon pushed ever higher up his flank. When Union got the ball, they played patiently, incurring the wrath of the blue majority when they did, striking the ball around calmly, waiting for a set piece. After all, Union had scored more headers than most this season; And Hertha could not stop conceding them.
So when Union’s opener came it was with only a minute of the half to go. And who else was there to head a corner powerfully home from the edge of the six yard boy than Danilho Doekhi, who is almost unstoppable when he rises off his toes, his eyes open, his body poised, coiled like a spring. He rose above everyone and guided the ball past Christensen into the top left corner. It was a hammer blow for Hertha.
Union double their lead… and hold on
The Union end erupted on the re-start, a rippling cracking mass of flags and flares. Becker, on the run, disappeared briefly into the smoke shrouding the Marathon Tor, the orange winter sunset away in the distance over Charlottenburg visible through it all.
Tensions rose on the pitch, too. Doekhi and Kanga got a talking to before a Hertha corner, the game was now littered with fouls, stuttering back into life. Kevin Behrens stampeded bull-like into Marc Kempf. The Hertha fans cried out in frustration as Richter misplaced a routine pass out to Lukebakio. Then again when he was offside when passed to by Peter Pekarik.
It was 2-0 not long after the hour. The result of a stunning Union break, stemming from a from a moment of chaos
Kempf thought he’d been fouled on the edge of Unions box, and went down, but Khedira had got the ball. Union played on, suddenly Becker was at full speed breaking down the left, Union two against one with Paul Seguin coming into the box in the middle. Becker cut it back, so calm, so simple, and all Seguin had to do was side-foot home. There was a moment as the Unioner celebrated and the Herthaner begged the referee, ending with him going to his screen. Nevertheless, Khedira knew all along.
Frederik Rönnow made a great, instinctive stop a few minutes later – as he would with ten minutes to go from Richter’s drive - and Lucas Toussart flashed a header over with quarter of an hour to go, but Union were dogged, and irrepressible, certain they’d won a penalty when Niko Giesselmann’s cross / shot struck a hand in the box. The referee, Brych waved Union’s entreaties away.
Hertha strove to change the game, risking more and more as the clock wound down, but Union were happy now to let them have the ball. Fischer, all in black was still in his technical area, hands in pockets, telling them to stay cool. Sandro Schwarz, in grey was now pacing, resigned to defeat.
And at the end all that could be heard were the cries of the Union fans singing Stadtmeister, stadtmeister. Berlin’s nummer eins.
Weirdly, it is hard to see that changing any time soon.