1.FC Union Berlin: Lennart Grill – Julian Ryerson (Niko Giesselmann), Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche, Danilho Doekhi, Christopher Trimmel – Janik Haberer (Milos Pantovic), Paul Seguin, Genki Haraguchi (Morton Thorsby)– Kevin Behrens (Sven Michel), Sheraldo Becker (Paul Jaeckel)
SC Freiburg: Mark Flekken – Philipp Lienhart, Mathias Ginter, Lukas Kubler (Sallai) – Christian Gunter, Nicolas Höfler (Eggestein), Yannik Keitel, Kiliann Sildillia – Vincenzo Grifo (Höler), Michael Gregoritsch (Petersen), Ritsu Doan (Woo-Yeong)
Goals: 1-0 Grifo (4), 2-0 Grifo (6), 3-0 Grifo (20), 4-0 Gregoritsch (45), 4-1 Michel (85)
Red card: Diogo Leite
So this is what it all boiled down to. The culmination of everything that had happened to 1. FC Union Berlin since Taiwo Awoniyi’s last minute winner against Bochum that ensured participation in the Europa league in the middle of May, to a chilly evening in Freiburg, and a bitter, crushing loss.
But for Union, this really still was the promised land, the realisation of wildest dreams coming true. It didn’t matter what happened here, if they’d end up in second or third, or fourth or, as it turned out in the end, fifth.
For they’d played a brutal series of games over the last month and a half. And as the game wound on they would start to resemble nothing more than the scene from the Barcelona Olympics when British sprinter Derek Redmond pulled up lame on the final straight. Few who ever saw it would forget his father coming on to help him hobble his way over the line, his hamstring snapped, tears stinging his eyes. But with the embrace of a loving hand on his shoulder
If Union were limping off, at least they had the magnificent Unioner to carry them to the very end.
Not that Urs Fischer would have countenanced such small talk before the game kicked off. It mattered to him, it mattered more than anything else on earth. Unfortunately for him, it also mattered to Freiburg. Christian Streich’s side were in a similar position; playing for history.
So he had replaced the suspended Rani Khedira with Paul Seguin at the heart of midfield, he’d brought Genki Haraguchi into the right of midfield, and Kevin Behrens continued from midweek’s draw with Augsburg where he began, but the rest were the players who had largely delivered so much, all season long.
And it was over within the flash of an eye
Freiburg took the lead before Union had barely had a touch of the ball. Within a minute Ritsu Doan had got onto the end of a Christian Gunter cross as he hared into the box. The ball struck Christopher Trimmel’s hand on the way, and the referee, after consulting the video screen, gave a penalty. Vincenzo Grifo, their top scorer this year, stroked the ball away to Lennart Grill’s left with calmness and ease.
He’d have a hat-trick within twenty-odd minutes.
It was two within five more as Grifo again broke at lightning pace, suddenly it was two against one. He laid the ball off for Michael Grigoritsch, who placed it back to him on a sixpence. Grifo couldn’t miss.
Then came a penalty for Union. It was breathless. Nicolas Höfler had caught Becker in the box. Robin Knoche, who’d scored one against Malmö, and one against Braga, stepped up. He beat the keeper, Mark Flekken, but his shot struck the base of the left hand post. These were two sides whose success had been built upon their stability, their sobriety. None of that would count for much. Union fell apart.
After 18 minutes came another penalty. Diogo Leite brought down Doan from behind, the referee immediately pointing to the spot, but it’d get worse for Union as he showed the Portuguese centreback a red card immediately. Union were down to ten, and down by three. Twenty minutes had been played.
Freiburg stroked the ball around after that, all their fears, and their own aching limbs, miraculously healed. Höfler and Yannick Keitel were composed in midfield, Phillipp Lienhart and Killian Sildillia with all the time in the world. Grigoritsch and Doan knocked it between themselves like they were playing table tennis. Becker broke down the middle, Julian Ryerson tried to pick out Behrens who dropped deeper to join the midfield battle, but Union could barely buy a touch of the ball, they were chasing shadows. Urs Fischer is fond of saying they’d have to play to their limit, they were at the end of their’s here in places.
Freiburg made it four with almost the last kick of the half as Gregoritsch drifted onto a ball through the middle and guided it deftly over Grill as he came out. It was sublime finish.
Union score, but it means little
Sheraldo Becker didn’t make it back out of the cabin after the interval, Paul Jaeckel taking his place. But few have given as much as he this season, few were as deserving of a break. Fischer, with his lieutenants Sebastian Bönig and Markus Hoffman either side of him, chewed furiously on the bench, there was nothing he could do to affect this game. Nor could Ryerson, no matter how he tried. He dropped his shoulders after getting penalised for a tussle with Keitel. You could see how this hurt him, how he’d given everything.
Fischer would make a couple more changes, bringing on Sven Michel and Morton Thorsby for Behrens and Harguchi, but it was largely a token gesture by this point, there was little to be done. Union pushed up, they tried, their pride stinging more than the pain in their legs. Michel crossed for Thorsby, Ryerson ran at Lienhart, Trimmel’s cross was easily claimed by Flekken. The Freiburg keeper made a far better save a few moments later from Thorsby’s wickedly hit volley.
Sven Michel would take the edge off the loss when he converted a penalty given with five minutes to go, nervelessly. But only slightly.
The Unioner, in a corner of the the Europark stadium, who had never stopped singing, as they never stopped singing against Leverkusen when it was 5-0, nor in Mainz when the heat was brutal and a goal wouldn’t have come had the sides kept playing until the apocalypse, sung “Always look on the bright side of life.” They knew that this was, to paraphrase a troubled, latter day soul singer, not alright, but it was okay. Because the one game they’d missed en-masse, away against Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, had hurt more than anything else, just not being able to be there.
And as Derek Redmond’s dad had held him up through that final straight, they held their football Gods up here. They had an arm under their shoulders. On a cold night they gave them the warmth of their hearts. Their love. And despite the loss, despite the sending off, despite the long way home they still had to face, they carried them all the way too, to the winter break.
Because this team had given them so much. It was really the least they could do.