Union lost their second friendly in two on Friday afternoon, as they fell 2-1 to Pafos FC, having taken the lead through Dominique Heintz. It was a sobering result, but these things can happen, with two players making their debuts, and many other newcomers still getting used to their new team. They will now train their focus onto tomorrow’s fixture with Udinese.
1. FC Union Berlin: Schwolow (46. Busk) – Trimmel, Jaeckel, Knoche (30. Doekhi, 60. Pantovic), Heintz, Skarke (84. Dehl) - Laïdouni (60. Kemlein), Kral, Aaronson (84. Jahaj) – Becker (65. Hollerbach), Siebatcheu (65. Kaufmann)
Pafos FC: Ivusic – Ikoko (65. Dall’igna), Kvida (80. Michael), Name, Murillo (80. Constantinou), Tavares – Kane (74. Abdusalamov), Pelagio (65. Demetriou), Valakari (80. Moreira) – Tankovic (59. Oliveira), Papastylianou (59. Felipe)
Goals: 1:0 Heintz (49.), 1:1 Felipe (80.), 1:2 Abdusalamov (88.)
The prettiest place to start
Alexander Schwolow stepped onto the pitch, looked around, hearing the 600 or so travelling Union fans sing, their voices bouncing around the Saalfelden Arena. Until recently he had been under contract at Hertha BSC – if he had spent the last year on loan at Schalke - and now here he was, at the base of a team in gold and green, the spectacular peak of the Unterberg rearing up like a jagged backed whale, breaching the surface of the ocean in the distance.
There are probably few prettier places on earth in which to make your debut, and you’d forgive him for thinking it all a little surreal. At least he had Robin Knoche ahead of him. Together they’d played for Germany’s under-20’s, but that was long time ago, now.
Schwolow had come to Union knowing that he wasn’t going to be the number one – Frederik Rönnow was easily one of the best keepers in the Bundesliga last season – but he wanted to make an impression as a back up. Everyone wants to be good on on their first day, after all.
He was at the back of a strong side, too, but Urs Fischer’s team had laboured in places during the 2-1 loss to Holstein Kiel on Saturday (though they hadn’t been helped by the strangeness of the stop-start four-quarters format, and the enforced break due to an injured referee) and they would have moments here that were similar in their disjointedness.
They had struggled to put the second division side under pressure until the final half an hour, and similarly, though the Cypriot league might not be ringing with glamour, Pafos have been smartly put together, have been progressing well over the last five years, and also know to take their chances when they get them.
But Union's goalscorer today, Dominique Heíntz, acknowledged after that it’s hard to integrate so many newcomers at once. And of course it is, there's no reason for Fischer to panic (and even a cursory look at the man will tell you that he'll never do that anyway). It's fine, Heintz said. It is all part of the process.
Here, Fischer’s starting eleven of Knoche, Paul Jaeckel and Dominique Heinz at the back, flanked by Christopher Trimmel and Tim Skarke on the right and left respectively signalled a hint of experimentation. But ahead of them was Alex Kral holding a dangerous looking midfield alongside Aissa Laidouni and Brenden Aaronson, both technical, both sharp on the turn, if one more dogged than the other. Sheraldo Becker and Jordan Siebatcheu were tried and tested up top.
A goalless first half
Of all Union’s newcomers, it was the regulars who showed up from Aaronson’s kick off first. Knoche made the first tackle, timed with the unerring perfection one expects, and Becker set the attacking tempo, winning a corner after a minute on the right, and crossing dangerously towards the head of Kral from the left a few minutes later.
But they were also often a little slow to get going.
Muamer Tankovic was at the heart of a nice move as Pafos countered down the left, the final cross flying dangerously across Schwolow’s box. After ten minutes he danced his way through again, but this time his pass only fell as far as Kral. Lysandros Papastylianou slipped when they had carved Union open with ten minutes to go in the first half, following Bruno Tavares’ jinking run and Tankovic’s stepover.
Fischer would never take his opponents lightly, of course. Pafos coach Juan Carlos carcedo was the number two to Unai Emery when Sevilla knocked his Basel side out of the Uefa cup almost a decade ago.
Kral, the new signing from Schalke was involved all over. He hit the bar early on, his towering header from the edge of the box coming from Trimmel’s corner on the right. He flattened Mamadou Kane after half an hour.
Then it was the central foul on him that saw the ball roll towards Schwolow, causing the briefest of moments of panic among the travelling fans, but that gave the keeper his first ever touch in an Union shirt. He’d not had a sniff of the ball til then, and it was hardly grandiose in the end, certainly not as momentous as the setting.
He picked the ball up easily, having only to roll it out for the free kick.
He’d see more of it though as the half went on, holding Moustapha Name’s shot easily, taking everything else with his feet with a preternatural calm.
Union kept pushing, if without causing great menace. Josef Kvida cleared off the line, when behind him Becker was ready to poke the ball easily over the line after 20 minutes. He’d have known the danger looming, they played together at Zwolle. Aaronson tried to find Jordan with a curling ball from the right; Jordan’s knockdown from Schwolow’s long ball out was just ahead of Becker.
But they were lacking a little precision, their final ball too often going missing and the half ended goalless.
Union score early, but Pafos double their tally
The only change at half time saw the end of Schwolow’s moment in the alpine sun. Jakob Busk, Union’s second longest serving player, replaced him between the posts. Busk would make one superb stop to his left ten minutes in, and another, prettier, if less necessary one to his right after ten minutes after that.
But Union already looked different further upfield. Laidouni and Becker linked up immediately following the break - Fischer’s words presumably ringing in their ears - and only the outstretched left foot of Ivisa Ivusic, Pafos’s goalkeeper, stopped his shot when Becker was through, one on one. Ivusic would save from Jordan a moment later.
It was that stop that would lead to Union’s opener. Trimmel took the ensuing corner, the ball finding its way to Danilho Doekhi (on for Knoche during the first half, following a knock) whose shot, in turn, wound its way somewhat fortuitously to Heintz, who stabbed it over the line, a guilty, but contented smile on his face.
Fischer rung in the changes as the half wore on. Aljoscha Kemlein came on, as did Laurenz Dehl. Milos Pantovic drove sweetly over the bar from outside the box to announce his entry onto the field. They would be joined by Mikkel Kaufmann, making only his third start, and Benedict Hollerbach, making his first.
Kral was still all action, leaving one midfielder for dead as he turned in the centre circle, combining with Kemlein, a flying header needed to clear his cross following a bursting run.
Still Pafos didn’t roll over, and they were unlucky not to equalise with quarter of an hour to go following a moment of teeming chaos in the box that saw bodies everywhere and the ball ultimately only dribbling just wide of Busk’s goal. It should have been heeded as a warning. For with ten minutes to go they equalised, Busk completely wrongfooted as Bruno Felipe’s shot came through a crowd on the edge of the box, taking the slightest, but wickedest of deflections on its way.
It was all the keeper could do to look agonisingly back over his shoulder as it went over the line, he was already miles away to his left as it trickled over to his right.
Dehl hit the underside of the bar with a gorgeous bending shot from the left as the clock ticked down, but it would be Pafos who had the last laugh as Magomedkhabib Abdusalamov found the ball at his toe with an inch of space in the six yard box. His was to be the final action of any consequence, and he finished past Busk as coolly as you like.
Fischer will demand an improvement from his charges against Udinese tomorrow. He acknowledged afterwards that his side looked tired in places, and that the many changes unsettled the balance a little. As heintz said, these things take a little time.
But it really was a lovely finish, worthy of the glorious setting.