The 5,000 travelling Unioner could only see their side lose 4-2 to a Hoffenheim side battling for their lives in a sold out stadium. Danilho Doekhi and Aissa Ladidouni both scored, but Ilhas Bebou, Munas Dabbur and a brace from Andrej Kramaric were to prove decisive for the jubilant hosts.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim: Baumann – Kabak, Brooks, Akpoguma (70. Bičakčić) – Bebou, Geiger (60. Rudy), Angelino – Prömel, Becker – Kramaric, Baumgartner (65. Dabbur)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel (69. Josip Juranović), Jaeckel (80. Siebatcheu), Doekhi, Leite (46. Baumgartl), Roussillon – Thorsby (46. Laïdouni), Khedira, Haberer (69. Leweling) – Becker, Behrens
Goals: 1:0 Bebou (22.), 2:0 Kramaric (36.), 2:1 Doekhi (45.+4), 3:1 Kramaric (90.), 3:2 Laïdouni (90.+5), 4:2 Dabbur (90.+9)
Attendance: 30,150 (sold out)
A party on the road
Never before had they flown so high. With 32 games played of the Bundesliga over 5,000 Unioner travelled southwest for this, the autobahns brimming with a snaking trail of red and white flags, the trains full, every seat draped with a scarf, the busses clanking and clinking with beers opened and emptied roaring to the sound of the feel good hit of the summer,
FCU, FCU in Europa, FC Union International.
They sung it, just as they had in Malmö and Braga and Brussels and Amsterdam as they had up and down Germany for all of this astonishing season. It had been a remarkable journey, and this promised to be, if not the crowning moment, then the affirmation of Union’s rise to becoming a force to be reckoned with, whether in the Europa or the Champions League, it didn’t really matter to most of them.
That Union would struggle to impose themselves on their hosts would ultimately matter little, for this was still a celebration of all they had already achieved.
In a time of untruths and fake news and an unwillingness to believe your own eyes, the facts were clear, unquestionable. After 32 games played, 1 FC Union Berlin – these upstarts, these perennial underdogs – had collected 59 points. They had two games to play and were fourth in the Bundesliga.
But this was no time to rest on their laurels. Urs Fischer has been relentless in the pursuit of his goals. Forty points and safety. Check. Qualification for Europe for the third time in a row. Check. And even still, when asked about a possible qualification for the Champions League on Thursday he had batted away the question with a predictable, disinterested ease.
“I’m not interested in woulds and coulds and ifs and maybes,” he explained. He was interested only in Hoffenheim.
The hosts, meanwhile, were fighting for their lives and it showed. They would, he said, present a problem, and they did during a first half where Union barely laid a glove on them until well into time added on in the first half.
Frederik Rönnow was between the posts, behind Diogo Leite, Danilho Doekhi and Paul Jaeckel, replacing a sick Robin Knoche, stuck in Berlin, missing only his second game of the season. Fischer’s flying wing-backs were again the captain, Christopher Trimmel on the right, and Jerome Roussillon on the left. Rani Khedira meanwhile anchored the midfield, sat behind Janik Haberer and Morten Thorsby, while up top were the heroes of last week’s superb win over SC Freiburg, the scorer of the first goal, Kevin Behrens, and the man who had played the game of his life, scoring two and setting up the other two, Sheraldo Becker.
Those 5,000 fans filled the blocks either side of their official corner, spreading out like a lake breaching its banks. They danced and they sung, and all along they allowed themselves the chance to dream of what would, could, if and maybe, happen. Even if, in the end, they would still have to wait another week to know their destiny.
Hoffenheim take the lead, then double it. Doekhi gives Union a lifeline.
It started with a pause as the blue and black smoke from the Hoffenheim home end swelled out into the arena. The Union players passed the ball between themselves, it took five minutes til they could start again from where they’d left off. Jaeckel found Becker with a raking long ball, Behrens laid one off to Trimmel.
Union stroked the ball about their back-line, Doekhi to Jaeckel to Rönnow, then they broke, Becker finding Thorsby before being tripped on the edge of the box. The referee, Christian Dingert, waved his appeals away. But gone was the lightning start of last week, Union looked patient, circumspect in the opening passages Khedira picked up Christoph Baumgartner’s lax pass with all the time in the world, circulating it back to Thorsby. But they were lacking a cutting edge.
Kevin Akpoguma hit a long ball to Grischa Prömel, Danilho Doekhi though ushered it out. But suddenly Ihlas Bebou, up front for Hoffenheim, flashed a header at Rönnow, not knowing too much about it. The ball found its way to Akpoguma who hit a blistering drive from 30 yards just to the right of Rönnows goal.
Prömel was a typical bustling presence, he tussled with Thorsby halfway inside the Union half. Finn Ole Becker looped a speculative ball into the arms of Union’s keeper a few minutes after.
Twenty minutes in, Union had their first sniff at goal. Behrens was flawed by a Prömel elbow, the resulting free kick whipped in where he got his head to it, but could only flash his header wide.
But they were struggling to find their rhythm, and it was Hoffenheim who took the lead after 23 minutes. Leite tried to head a harmless ball back to Rönnow but didn’t get enough on it, the ball sliding regretfully off his forehead into the path of Bebou. He took a touch and finished, a despairing Doekhi’s lunge towards the line to try and divert the ball’s path proving fruitless. He held his head in his hands.
Union came back, Trimmel lofting one ball into the box, then another, but both times they were cleared with relative ease, before Khedira unleashed a drive from the edge of the box that flew over. Union struggled to rouse themselves.
Then Leite caught Baumgartner as he went for the ball in the box, catching him on the shin. The referee called immediately for VAR, but the striker stayed down. The wait was endless, the tension unbearable, but he eventually pointed to the spot. Andrej Kramaric stepped up, stuttered his run as Rönnow made himself as big as he could, and finished unstoppably to the keeper’s right.
Union sputtered into life again. Thorsby headed over falling backwards, but it would still take a great tackle from Leite to stop Bebou as he marauded down the right hand side; as did a masterly Doekhi, ushering Prömel out of play with the minimum of fuss on the opposite flank.
Then, with four of the seven minutes added on Becker got his side a lifeline, his attempted cross from the right coming off the boot of Angelino for a corner. Trimmel hit it deep and high, it swirled in the hot air like the gliders circling lazily through the skies above, where Danilho Doekhi threw himself between two flat-footed defenders on the box, and powered a header in off the bar.
It had been he who clawed Union back into the game last time the sides met (he scored twice in the eventual 3-1 win) and he had done it again. He picked the ball out of the net and sprinted back to the halfway line.
Hoffenheim extend their lead, Laidouni pulls one back, but Dabbur breaks Union’s hearts
Fischer made two changes at half time, Aissa Laidouni for Morten Thorsby and Timo Baumgartl for Leite. But it was Hoffenheim again who attacked first, Kramaric undercooking his pass to Bebou when they were suddenly three against two, and a bit more incision could have opened Union up.
Laidouni, though, was having none of that, he hit a vicious right footed volley from out on the right that speared its way just past Oliver Baumann’s back post. He then found Becker with a delicious ball outside that was then passed immediately on to Rousillon on the overlap. Behrens couldn’t quite get on the end of the cross, despite his flying best efforts.
Becker then lifted a shot over the bar from close range following another one of those deep, searching Trimmel balls in from the right.
One Laidouni run with ten minutes to go showed him at his best, he robbed Rudy, before charging at Prömel down the middle; and Becker too wanted the ball more and more, often drifting way out to the left, he combined neatly with Khedira and Rousillon, he shot from distance after an hour, and then a moment later suddenly found himself one on one with Baumann but could only hit his shot straight at the keeper.
Fischer made two more changes with twenty minutes to go. Jamie Leweling (who had scored the third last time) and Josip Juranovic coming on for the skipper, Trimmel, and Haberer. They would ultimately be joined by Jordan Siebatcheu as Fischer threw all his cards on the table.
Union had been far better in the second half, and immediately after the changes had a free kick after Becker was brought down, a mazy run across the edge of the box stopped in its tracks. It was dead centre, 25 yards out. Juranovic chose to shoot low, this time, beating the wall, but dragging it wide. Leweling saw a ball dropping over his shoulder and tried to kill it with his toe, but it was just too far ahead of him. It took a lunge from Sebastian Rudy to stop Doekhi’s shot from outside the box, a chest from the same player to beat away Becker’s drive.
Still Hoffenheim created chances of their own, Bebou shooting at Rönnow having bustled past Rousillon, put off by the attentions of Doekhi coming at him from the side.
Things grew tetchy after a drinks break, with Prömel at the heart of things, winding up his old team-mates, the heat and the tension sapping the players strength on both sides, Becker getting a yellow card for punching the ball into the ground when certain he’d been fouled by Ozan Kabak. But still Becker managed to loop a shot in from the left that Baumann did well to scoop out of his top corner.
Kramaric would have what he thought was the final word though, after Dabbur managed to jink his way down to the byline, squaring for Hoffenheim’s top scorer who only had to sidefoot the ball into an empty net ahead of him. They had potentially rescued their season, and they’d derailed Union’s party. But things weren't over yet.
Laidouni ghosted into the box at the other end, brushing Prömel aside, finishing with his left foot. 3-2. Suddenly Union had a sniff, and they piled everyone up top for a final throw, but the ball came back at them through Kramaric, he squared for Dabbur whose finish at the near post was as clinical as it was heartbreaking.
Fischer, meanwhile, took it in his stride, his focus already trained on next week. He said falling 2-0 down was "unnecessary, and it shouldn't happen." He said football is a game of mistakes, and his side had made too many. He was far happier after Doekhi's goal, and Union's second half performance, but it wasn't to be enough. "It's hard," he said, "but we've got to accept it."
The Hoffenheim fans came onto the pitch after the final whistle to revel in their now probable Bundesliga redemption, while Union’s players trudged immediately over to the Unioner, now lit up in their corner by a triangle of glorious sunshine.
And if the players were gutted, most of the fans knew that this game hadn’t been the be all and end all. It never was, and they would take to the road back to Berlin in as good spirits as when they'd arrived.
They knew that they had time still on their hands, and now just a single game to go in the season of their lives.