Once again Union won in 2023; once again they did so having had to tap into their seemingly inexhaustible depths of strength and willpower. Through a beautiful Janik Haberer volley and a nerveless Robin Knoche penalty, they beat RB Leipzig in Leipzig to go back to second in the table.
RasenBallsport Leipzig: Blaswich – Klostermann, Simakan (74. Poulsen), Gvardiol – Henrichs, Laimer (62. Haidara), Schlager, Halstenberg (88. Raum) – Szoboszlai, Silva (74. Forsberg), Werner
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow- Juranovic, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Gießelmann (80. Roussillon) – Laidouni (86. Thorsby), Khedira, Haberer (80. Seguin)– Becker (62. Michel), Behrens (62. Siebatcheu)
Goals: 1:0 Henrichs (24.), 1:1 Haberer (61.), 1:2 Knoche (72.)
Urs Fischer had said during his press conference on Thursday that he expected this to be hard. And it was. He said that Union would have to have an incredible day to dethrone the form-team in German football. And they did. He said that this Leipzig side had been as if born-anew since the arrival of Marco Rose. And it was true.
But there was something he did not say. What he didn’t say was that his Union side have made a habit of having incredible days. He didn’t say that they press as hard as anyone without the ball, are well-drilled, break like lightning, and are as dangerous from set-pieces as anyone in the league.
They also have the toughest spirit since Muhammad Ali in full rope-a-dope flow, and have a back three so solid you could cut diamonds with them.
What Fischer didn’t say is that Leipzig had as much to fear from Union as they did from Leipzig, even if he knew that they did, even if he said that he was confident going into every game. And that they can take as many knocks as you would like to hit them with and it will not – never! - matter.
He knew all this of course, but he didn’t say it, because until the referee blew his whistle to end his side’s remarkable performance, few of us would have really believed it either.
Even though it was all true.
Union patient, Leipzig take the lead
The Unioner started off silent, as is traditional against RB. The fans did everything they could to not get involved, to scream out in joy, to cry out in injustice, to do what comes most naturally to them. Such as when Sheraldo Becker tried to get the run on Lukas Klostermann, or when Robin Knoche made a perfectly timed challenge on Dominik Szoboszlai, or when Rani Khedira lost the ball to Konrad Laimer, or even the brief flash of fear as Marcel Halstenberg thought he’d forced Niko Giesselmann to handle in the box, all of which happened in the first few minutes.
Or when the superb Aissa Laidouni left Benjamin Henrichs in a heap, just to let him know he was there.
Fischer has said before how much he would rather they roar out for the full 90 minutes, but their point was made all the more eloquent through its masochistic nature. And they were lucky in a way, for Union were content to let RB have the ball through that opening period, even though there were moments including a gorgeous, jinking, triangular passing move between Laidouni, Juranovic and Kevin Behrens, proving the lie that Union can’t really play. They recreated it on the other side later, this time with Behrens, Giesselmann and Haberer.
Behrens was involved in everything, he flicked on a header after quarter of an hour, he flicked on ball with a chest puffed out like a bullfrog in mating season after 20 minutes.
However, it was RB who took the lead through Henrichs, who cut inside from the left where he had been loitering, avoiding the attentions of a Juranovic who maybe stood off him too far, 30 yards out. He took a touch and hammered the ball with his right foot past Frederik Rönnow at the near post. Diving at full stretch, the Union keeper got a finger to it, but there was too much power and precision in the shot for him to be able to keep it out.
Union pushed back, first through Haberer on the left, then when Laidouni ghosted past Timo Werner on the right. But it also took the combined might of Diogo Leite and Giesselmann to stop the German international when he broke at the other end. That led to a corner that induced panic in the Union box, Laimer ultimately shooting into the crowd. the ball struck Behrens on the hand, but he knew little about it. Werner then tried to feed Halstenberg, but the winger had strayed a mile offside.
In the performance of Aissa Laidouni, Fischer had great reason for cheer. There is something of the Paul Pogba like about him when on the march, an Edgar Davids about him in the tackle and when on the prowl without the ball. One pass to Sheraldo Becker was an impish delight; one around Timo Werner cut him out of the game like a scorned lover. He rolled around Henrichs as if he was on ice. He set up Becker on the right with glacial ease, bringing the ball down with his knee, nudging it forward with a long stride. The shot was deflected wide from Becker’s right foot, but the corner it had earned was never given.
Haberer found Becker with a lovely long ball with five minutes left of the half, but Mohamed Simakan was wise to the danger and just snuffed it out.
Union had come back from more games this year already though than most sides do in a season. They'd gone a goal down to Hoffenheim, Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg in the cup, and gone on to win all of them. So though Fischer was angry. He could at least rest at half time, knowing that they weren’t up against the impossible.
Haberer’s unbelievable strike, Knoche’s nerveless penalty
He sent them out early - he’s done it before, too - to make a point to the crowd about Union’s will, and to his own players to tell them they needed to be ready. They waited in the huge expanses of what was once the largest stadium in the GDR, lined up in formation, his instructions ringing in their ears.
But Union did not start with the furious indignation they had against Hoffenheim, for example (one Kevin Behrens drive from the edge of the box aside). They remained patient, their offside trap perfectly honed as shown when Xaver Schlager thought he had set Werner off through the middle, only to be flagged immediately. Then, when Szoboszlai and Silva contrived to create a chance after 52 minutes, Silva blazed over.
Even when Leite tried to spring a break of Union’s own, catching Becker offside, the striker gestured with his palms down. He told him to calm down, to take it easy.
The chances would come. Halstenberg fouled Laidouni on the edge of the box after Giesselmann’s clever cross from the left. Juranovic chose to shoot, his venomous drive punched away by Janis Blaswich.
Their patience was paid off as another corner found its way to Janik Haberer on the edge of the box. He volleyed the ball past Blaswich with ruthless power and superb technique – his head still, over the ball, his balance perfect, he was poised like a ballerina, up on one toe.
Bedlam broke out among the Unioner. It would increase as the half wore on.
Union then won a penalty when Simakan, under pressure from Michel, handled in the box. The Leipzig players surrounded the referee, but it was for nothing. Meanwhile Robin Knoche held the ball under his right arm, the calmest man in the building. He blasted his penalty down the middle with brutal coolness.
It was utterly remarkable. The spirit this side had shown was almost, even by their own standards, astonishing.
But the game wasn’t over. Far from it. Leipzig thought they had clawed themselves back into things when Yussuf Poulsen, who has been tormenting Union since their first meeting in the 2.Liga almost a decade ago, slid in to toe over the line. But in the build-up Werner had been offside.
Marco Rose was livid at the late VAR-aided decision. The decision hung on whether Laidouni's flicked back-heel was intentional and controlled or not. Though his indignation mattered little in the end. The Unioner took a breath. Fischer, however, stayed sat. He had barely moved.
There were more hairy moments, but somehow it seemed as if this was meant to be. Laidouni left, replaced by Morton Thorsby to adoration. Leite found himself up front, taking too long to shoot, and then a moment later back at home in the back-line again, robbing Poulsen with simplistic ease. He was led off the pitch with added time almost over after a clash of heads. However, he would be back.
It was a wild finish, Union hung on by the skin of their teeth. Forsberg flicked a header past the far post with four minutes of time added on gone. A combination of Rönnow’s hand and Leite’s knee stopped a Poulsen header on the line.
But when the final whistle finally blew, Union's players dropped to their knees. Fischer said it was surreal, and how his team were performing superhuman things through their spirit and their solidarity and their belief in themselves, and how right he was.
For at the moment, he always is.