Union lost 2-0 on Sunday evening in Leipzig, despite debutant Alexander Schwolow’s heroics. The goals from Ikoma-Lois Openda and Benjamin Šeško adding to the further pain of captain Christopher Trimmel’s second half red card.
RasenBallsport Leipzig: Gulácsi – Henrichs, Klostermann, Orban (70. Lukeba), Raum (83. Bitshiabu) – Xavi, Schlager, Kampl (83. Seiwald), Olmo (77. Elmas) – Openda (77. Poulsen), Šeško
1. FC Union Berlin: Schwolow – Trimmel, Knoche, Vogt, Doekhi, Gosens – Haberer (58. Volland), Tousart (58. Khedira), Schäfer (58. Laidouni) – Vertessen (75. Aaronson), Hollerbach (75. Bedia)
Goals: 1-0 Openda (11.), Šeško 2-0 (48.)
The starting XI
It was a big day for Alexander Schwolow, not only making his first-team debut for Union, but with it his 200th Bundesliga match. His appearance – coming in for the sick Frederik Rönnow – wasn’t the only change, for he was behind a back three not just of Robin Knoche and Kevin Vogt, but also Danilho Doekhi, himself making his first start for Union since he played the full 90 minutes against VfB Stuttgart back in October.
Nenad Bjelica – still absent due to serving the second of his three match touchline ban – had opted again for Christopher Trimmel and Robin Gosens as full backs, flanking a midfield three of Lucas Tousart, Janik Haberer and Andras Schäfer.
Up front he decided that pace was the thing, opting foe benedict Hollerbach and the new guy, freshly signed from PSV Eindhoven, Yorbe Vertessen.
Schwolow shines, but Openda breaks through
Schwolow had his first touch of many in the latest part of this next chapter of his long Bundesliga career early on, punching away from David Raum’s cross from the left. He would make several superb interventions, and this was just the beginning, but Union looked sharp and organised at the back initially, as when Tousart robbed Benjamin Henrichs, or Doekhi heading an earlier ball from Raum away with the glacial ease he had made such a trademark of before his long layoff. Knoche, a battling presence all chastening afternoon long, stepped in front of Šeško, his timing immaculate.
Union seemed content to let the hosts have the ball, spreading that back three as wide as possible without it, but the host's first chance came when Schäfer was adjudged to have brought down Dani Olmo on the edge of the box, out right. Raum stepped up but could only hit it into Union’s wall, Vogt, without pause for thought, taking the ball full in the face. It was hit with such pace it floored the big centre-back for a moment.
In one of Union's first forays forwards, Tousart took a couple of steps through midfield and slotted Vertessen in for his first run on the ball, but Peter Gulácsi was out of his box smartly. He took the ball outside the box by a couple of clear inches but let it slip under his body, turning to hide it before the linesman could see. Union could feel more than aggrieved at the blind eye turned.
But they had cause for hope, too. It was the first signs of what the Belgian could offer, and of the havoc the pace of he and Hollerbach could cause on the break. After 20 minutes Hollerbach hit a cross shot that had to be turned over the bar at the last by Gulácsi, caught in a moment of sudden panic.
It was a small sign of what Union’s assistant coach, Marie-Louise Eta had said Union would need to do. “We had planned to play boldly forward from our possession and we showed that over the course of the game.”
All that would mean little, however, after 11 minutes as a Leipzig set-piece pinballed around in the box, Henrichs’ shot ultimately being blocked unwittingly by Vogt. The ball dropped to Ikoma-Lois Openda outside of the right-hand post where he finished superbly first time, drilling the ball in at the near post from a tight angle, high and with power.
Leipzig took the game on after that, they were now dominant, pushing and pulling Union about, the guests chasing shadows.
But time and again Schwolow was there to thwart them. He made a fine stop to his right from Openda after 18 minutes, after another Leipzig attack orchestrated by Olmo’s neat through ball, as he’d make another, if more routine one from Openda before the half was up, and an even better one, down to his right as Benjamin Sesko’s downward header zipped back up off the pitch and seemed to have him beaten. His outstretched arm seemed to come from nowhere.
Gosens did well later to athletically head a clearance away and behind him before a deep cross dropped to the feet of Henrichs. But it was at the other end that he was starting to have some more fun, he whipped in a ball from the left that Vertessen flicked goalwards. Vertessen was showing his pace too. When caught at full pelt by Xaver Schlager he slid for another five metres on the green turf, leaving a tyre track in his wake that would be visible from the highest stands well into the second half.
Union were getting more into the game as the half wore on. Hollerbach outpaced and outmuscled Schlager down the left, hitting the byline; Tousart manoeuvred a little space in the middle to turn away from Kampl, while at the back Vogt did superbly to get in ahead of Šeško again to clear away and over the bar. The big Slovenian would have another that he headed over before the whistle blew. He wouldn’t miss his next chance.
Leipzig score an early second. Trimmel sees red.
Tousart got an immediate yellow as soon as the second half kicked off, leaving a free kick for Leipzig 25 yards out, to Leipzig’s left. Raum bent it in with his right where Sesko sneaked into the six-yard box. Schwolow got a hand to it, but there was too much power on the header. Union were stunned.
Stemming the tide, Schwolow made another stunning stop from Dani Olmo soon after that after the Spaniard let fly from space just outside the box.
Olmo was causing havoc, his rabona cross seeing Šeško again head home, but this time it wouldn’t count, the striker having strayed an inch offside as the ball was played in.
Immediately Danijel Jumić made changes from the touchline, binging on Rani Khedira and Aissa Laïdouni for Schäfer and Haberer, adding a little bite and weight to a midfield now in danger of being overrun, as well as Kevin Volland for Tousart, desperate to turn the tide.
And his side continued to fight, Hollerbach being a case in point, it’s not his style to give up. He was tireless down the right, winning a corner, then it took both Lukas Klostermann and Willi Orban to stop Vertessen as he ran through on goal, clipping a ball just too far ahead of Gosens with 20 minutes to play.
But then came the hammer blow. Trimmel lunged in on Raum near the centre circle and the referee barely batted an eyelid before going into his pocket, coming out with a straight red, if it seemed harsh at the time. The captain trudged off the pitch, his exit prompting the arrival of Chris Bedia and Brenden Aaronson for the twin attack of Hollerbach and Vertessen, the green shoots they’d shown, sadly for nothing on a tough Saxon evening. It was ten minutes later than Kevin Volland’s red against the same opposition in their home tie earlier this season. That one signalled Union’s capitulation, even if this wouldn’t. But it was hard to see how Union could come back from it nonetheless. Still, however, they fought on. Eta said as much later on, "We kept creating chances around the 60th minute, but unfortunately we didn't finish them off, which is something we need to work on."
Laïdouni was immediately, constantly involved, battling with Christoph Baumgartner and Šeško at the back, switching a long ball out towards Volland from the halfway line, closing gaps and haring into challenges. Doekhi, too, threw himself at a 50-50 ball with Unions old foe, Yussuf Poulsen, winning the header through force of will alone; as was Robin Knoche, somehow dragging himself back into a footrace against the superb Xavi Simons when he seemed to have the beating of him as he sped into the box.
Khedira, wearing Trimmel’s armband now, was up and down the pitch, leading by example, getting up straight away even after being blindsided by a cracking blow to the ribs from Šeško, his momentum taking him onto Union’s midfielder like that of the pacific ocean crashing onto the California coasts.
There was still time for one more Schwolow masterclass, tipping Simon’s shot onto the bar, having danced his way into the box and giving himself a cramp in the process. And as the rain still poured down the Unioner kept going, their call and response between the two halves of their swollen, indefatigable block a joy to behold and a lesson to all of the passion that these fans can bring to a game, whether winning or losing.
But after five minutes added on, the game was up for their men on the pitch, and their eyes turned immediately to a midweek appointment in Mainz. Schwolow even alluded to it after the game, his performance failing to mask his disappointment at the result. "We conceded too much overall. It's annoying that we conceded two goals from set pieces... Now the game on Wednesday will be all the more crucial for us."