1. FC Union Berlin went second in the Bundesliga table at the halfway point of a remarkable season with a 2-1 win over SV Werder Bremen at the Weserstadion.
SV Werder Bremen: Pavlenka – Pieper (77. Veljkovic), Stark, Friedl - Weiser, Gruev, Jung (71. Buchanan) - Bittencourt, Schmidt (77. Stage) - Füllkrug, Ducksch (77. Burke)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranovic, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Gießelmann (88. Roussillon) – Haraguchi (72. Seguin), Khedira, Haberer (84. Schäfer) – Becker (84. Leweling), Behrens (72. Siebatcheu)
Urs Fischer had been careful not to take Bremen for granted in advance of this midweek match, he didn't want to draw too much from Bremen’s hammering last weekend to Köln. “Everything went wrong for them,” he said, and how right he was. But the important thing was that he didn’t want his side to get too cocky, to get too ahead of themselves having despatched Hoffenheim so comprehensively in the second half of their own win at the same time over Hoffenheim.
For that was at home with a blizzard, and the howling gale of the Unioner at full force behind them. This would be a different kind of fight, he was keen to say.
But he did also knew know he had almost a full squad at his disposal, one broadened with the inclusion of new signings Josip Juranovic and Jerome Rousillon for the first time. Whereas Pousillon would have to wait for his chance to get in ahead of Niko Giesselmann at left wing-back, the highly rated Juranovic came straight in for Christopher Trimmel on the right.
Their situations were different, of course. Juranovic had only just played his last game for Celtic last week, and had the majority of the World Cup behind him. But, still, it was with a certain amount of surprise the Unioner saw the news.
But the other big change was in the inclusion of Kevin Behrens, on for Jordan Siebatcheu up front. Siebatcheu had been missing goals of late, but what is often not recognised is the space he creates with his movements. But Behrens had been banging on this door for a while now. And he had a special need to start here.
He grew up a Bremen fan, he played for them all the way through his youth. He had been at the Weserstadion many times before. But this was the first time he would come here as an Unioner, a starter, a man with the chance to take his side to second in the Bundesliga table if the stars aligned and the tide was high.
That he would take his chance with brutal, battering aplomb, in front of his friends and his family and the adoration of a couple thousand Unioner singing their hearts out, was still astonishing. It was the stuff of fairytales.
He would torment his old club, particularly treating Bremen keeper, Jiri Pavlenka, with the respect a fox treats the plumpest of ducklings.
A comedy of errors, a couple of goals
All eyes were on Juranovic at kick off, of course, and his first touch was simple, a flicked pass back to Danilho Doekhi. He would impress as the first half wore on, getting used to the movements of his team-mates, increasingly linking up with Genki Haraguchi and Sheraldo Becker on the right. He robbed Leonardo Bittencourt with battling, determined ease. And if they were there, the Croatian betrayed few signs of nerves.
But nor did Behrens, who introduced himself to the game with a granite chest, killing the ball from a long pass and knocking it out to Becker in the same move. His second was almost decisive. Union pressed Bremen all the way back until suddenly Pavlenka found the ball under his feet and the big striker haring down upon him, and not for the last time.
Behrens slid in to tackle the terrified stopper, and won the ball with his right foot, but it squirmed away and out, much to the Bremen fans’ great relief. Behrens shook his head, his old fashioned, slicked back hair bouncing in the iconic floodlights as he did so. He was up for this; there to rise to flick a Juranovic throw-in on a minute later, brushing off the attentions of a defender like he wasn’t there at all.
It was symptomatic of Bremen’s jittery approach though. After almost ten minutes Niklas Schmidt was robbed by Rani Khedira not far from his own box, when taking too long on the ball. He was lucky the Union player was penalised for a foul, though it looked a little soft.
Union looked in control of things, but it was at the other end where the first goal would come. Genki Haraguchi conceded a foul 25 yards out, towards Unions right hand side. Marvin Duksch’s free kick was bent in superbly and Pieper was there to head it down and through the legs of a sprawling Frederik Rönnow. It was his first goal for Bremen, and couldn’t have come at a better time.
But the warnings for the home side should have been heeded, and it was Pieper himself who was at fault for Union’s equaliser just minutes later, playing the laziest of passes back in the general direction of Pavlenko. Behrens again chased it down, and the ball bounced into the path of Janik Haberer, who was on to it like shot, rolling the ball into an empty net wondering all the while how he had been even given the chance.
There was chaos at both ends during the first half. Bremen almost scored when they hit the post, Niclas Füllkrug battling to win a ball in the box and squeezing it out to Niklas Schmidt. It was only through the attentions of Niko Giesselmann that the ball only hit the base of the post at agonisingly slow speed. He roared after that at his fellow defenders, livid.
Union had got away with one and they knew it.
The neutral may have been enjoying the action, for it was an excellent game, wild and open and littered with chances, but Urs Fischer tugged at his baseball cap from his seat. Later on he’d be pacing in front of the dugout, shouting instructions audible over the roar of the crowd. Especially when it took Danilho Doekhi at full diving stretch to snuff out a dangerous looking Schmidt through ball that Füllkrug was eyeing up greedily.
And as the half was almost at its end, for a moment it looked like Union had taken the lead, and through yet another howler at the back. Pavlenka took too long to clear and Behrens again chased him down, almost cruelly. This time the keeper got it away, but it struck the striker's hand, deflecting the ball straight into the path of Becker who drove it home majestically with his left from outside the box. The referee gave the goal initially, but went to the VAR screen in the end.
The ball had certainly hit Behrens, but he seemed to know little about it.
There was still time for a great stop from Robin Knoche, sticking out a boot to to his right instinctively to flick a shot wide after more good work by the dangerous Schmidt and Füllkrug.
Somehow, though, the sides went into the break level.
Union in control, Behrens provides the finish
The second half started with a bang, and from a predictable source. Union won a corner immediately through Haberer. Juranovic lifted both hands to the sky in one of those eternally undecipherable pieces of footballing semaphore. He puffed out his cheeks, and lofted a deep cross, bending back in towards goal, where Behrens had timed his run to perfection. He made it to the six-yard line at the same time as the ball, and rose to power it home.
He ran to his family. His joyful cry rippled the Weser, it shook the tiles on the roof of his old house.
Bremen didn’t wilt. Füllkrug volleyed a Bittencourt cross, catching it well, but too close to Rönnow. Bittencourt would hit a free kick that Rönnow deflected just over the bar with ten minutes to go
Until he left, replaced by Jordan on 72 minutes, Behrens was often alone up front entirely in parts of the second half, but he almost made it three for Union when he met Becker’s cross at the front post, again the ball rolling agonisingly along the line before being cleared.
He was a menace, cheered to the rafters of the Weserstadion by the Union fans when he came off, a smile on his face as big as the floodlights, the Unioner cheered his name as they sung and sung and sung.
Becker, meanwhile, hadn’t had much of a sniff of goal all game, bar his disallowed effort. His selfless running was often out on the wing, drifting in and out of the channels, and when he cut in from the left, beating Pieper for sheer pace, he could only shoot at Pavlenka with his left. But he’d been creating the gaps for Behrens to torment Bremen in, terrifying them with his pace, the whites of their eyes flashing when he got the ball.
As he was combining with Haberer, and the two of them contrived a neat chance for Giesselmann to drive just wide on the hour. Becker also crossed for Khedira to head straight at Pavlenka with quarter of an hour to go. Fischer slapped the Amsterdam born striker on the back as he came off, as he was trying to hide his frustration, as a man who has the highest of standards for himself. Becker nodded back to his boss, but only just.
Union hung back more and more as the half wore on, willing to soak up the blows, relying on their returned sense of discipline, their intimate knowledge of each others’ games. On the solidity that a back three of Knoche, Doekhi and Diogo Leite give each other, in the knowledge that even if one of them is off his game, the others will step up.
There was a flickering moment of worry as Giesselmann – who had played superbly again, stepping into the gap left by Julian Ryerson admirably – clashed heads and was left prone on the goal line for a moment, but it was just a moment. But he went down again a couple of minutes later after another clash, this time on the other side. He winced and was led off, to be replaced by Jerome Rousillon, making his first ever appearance since joining the club.
But neither his appearance - nor even an impressive Juranovic’s - on debut, were as incredible as the coming home that Behrens had provided. Fischer was delighted after the game, of course, saying how proud he was, calling the victory "well deserved", and remarking on their 33 points and 2nd place being above all outside expectations. But it was to his striker that the evening belonged.
He’ll treasure this day for a long, long time to come.