Union beat TSG Hoffenheim 1-0 on a Saturday afternoon that saw both teams have a player sent off at the end of an extended first half. But Brenden Aaronson finished off Jérôme Roussillon and Yorbe Vertessen’s fine work on the left-hand side superbly after 73 minutes, and the three points would come, very, very happily back to Köpenick.
TSG Hoffenheim: Baumann – Kadeřábek, Kabak, Grillitsch, Nsoki – Stach, Prömel (29. Weghorst), Tohumcu (46. Skov) – Bebou (81. Conté), Kramarić, Beier
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel (81. Juranović), Doekhi, Vogt, Leite, Gosens (81. Roussillon) – Tousart, Khedira (6. Král), Laïdouni (66. Aaronson)– Volland, Hollerbach (66. Vertessen)
The starting XI
Nenad Bjelica had a full week’s training with his players, one he professed himself very happy with during his press conference on Thursday when he was almost bullish about the task posed by a Hoffenheim side under more pressure than his. Particularly so following Union’s win over Wolfsburg at the weekend.
But he had deflected any attempts to draw him on whether he would be tempted to play a right footer at the left of his (presumed) back three, though ultimately answered with the sight of leftie, Diogo Leite, alongside Saturday’s scorer, Danilho Doekhi, and Kevin Vogt, returning from injury for the benched Robin Knoche.
He could also be happy to play a full-time full-back on the right. Having been superbly understudied by Janik Haberer and Alex Král, Christopher Trimmel - who, he also confirmed, would continue to be the captain until the end of the season - was the right wing back, with Robin Gosens on the left.
The midfield was anchored by Rani Khedira, with Lucas Tousart and Aïssa Laïdouni, coming in for Andras Schäfer whose horrific head injury left him stuck at home in Berlin.
Up top they looked the same as against Wolfsburg, as Kevin Volland and Benedict Hollerbach continued their promising partnership.
Goal: 1:0 Aaronson (83.)
Hoffenheim hit the post; Hollerbach does the same. Nsoki and Volland see red
A strange, disjointed and interrupted first half started with two huge chances for Hoffenheim within the first three minutes, both coming within a second of each other.
The first drew the almost predictable best out of Rönnow who flew into a beautiful save from Ihlas Bebou, diving to his left, one handed, before Bebou cannoned one off the post with the follow up after the ball had pinged around in the crowd.
But that was the good news for Union. The worse would follow as seen in the worried faces as Khedira went down in the thick of the moment of chaotic action, and was led off the pitch, wincing. His team-mates took stock and the hosts looked around, wondering how on Earth they hadn’t scored. Few had any answers. Maybe it just wasn’t to be their day.
But if Union thought they’d been lucky, the fates had something else in store. The vice-skipper couldn’t carry on, his season had taken another cruel twist and he limped off again, his sock around his ankle, his face a picture of anger and pain. Alex Král replaced him with only five minutes played.
After the final whistle, the goalscorer, Aaronson would describe the game as “crazy”, saying that “there wasn’t a lot of football being played… and it was important to stay focussed”, and he was right. Union's win would come from their determination.
Things couldn’t carry on so furiously, and it was reduced to stop-starting as Grischa Prömel caught Volland, and Stanley Nsoki caught Leite, both with elbows to the face.
Union were growing into the game, with Hollerbach their primary outlet on the right, and Volland opening up plenty of spaces in the middle.
Then, after 17 minutes Hollerbach, the brightest spark the guests had during those opening passages, hit the post at the other end. It started with a glorious, eye-of-a-needle ball from Trimmel, played diagonally in to Volland on the edge of the box who turned sharply clockwise and laid it off for his partner, who side-footed first time, across the keeper, Oliver Baumann, and away.
But it was Rönnow, once again, who provided the Unioner, packed into their corner in the otherwise, somewhat sparsely populated stadium with colour as he sprung into action to palm away a sharp cross from the left. Hollerbach countered, his cut-back ball evading Volland and intercepted just as it reached a Laïdouni, arriving in the box with exquisite timing.
Union were the better side by this point and Gosens would have the ball in the back of the net, again after a ball from Hollerbach on the right, but this time he’d strayed an inch offside as the deepest of balls was played in to him from well inside Union’s half.
With the half drawing slowly towards its end the regular sight of tennis balls thrown onto the pitch came - just as they have across the country for the last few weeks - and after a couple of attempts to re-start (and a collective talk led by Bjelica who had used a similar opportunity against Wolfsburg to re-arrange his side) the players were led down the tunnel and away to their changing rooms.
The next break was of a more typical, if dramatic nature, as Nsoki dragged Volland down, and the referee, Robert Hartmann spoke to them both to de-escalate the situation. The fourth official signalled that there would be 12 minutes to play; both got yellow cards.
But Nsoki wouldn’t heed his words. A minute later he came through back of Volland again and got his second yellow. He trudged off eventually, still raging.
Volland, however, would join him straight after that. He tackled Kramaric, who reacted, seemingly knowing exactly what he was doing. But Hartmann didn’t think twice about it – though Volland could consider himself unfortunate this time. The referee showed no pause in showing him his second yellow immediately.
It had been compelling, disjointed, rollercoaster of a half.
Hoffenheim ascendant, but Aaronson decides the tie
As the first half started with a chance for Hoffenheim, so the did the second; Maximilian Beier’s header was put wide when he was largely alone to rise in the box. But it was also to have its early interruptions, Anton Stach went down under a Tousart challenge that was ignored by most as play carried on for a time.
Tousart then shot wide at the near post having been slipped into one of the large gaps opening up on the pitch by Trimmel. Stach drew another good stop from Rönnow, exploiting another one at the other end. He was growing increasingly influential, bleached blonde hair and the ball at his toe dogging Union’s battling midfield, his next shot deflected wide for a corner.
Hoffenheim had come out strongest, and all nine of Union’s outfield players were soon decamped in their own half. Bebou had a huge chance after an hour when he was found open and onside. His touch was a little heavy, and by the time he drove at Rönnow he was already under pressure from Leite, and could only shoot at Union’s sprawling keeper.
With 25 minutes to play, Bjelica reacted, bringing off the tireless – if tired – Laidouni and Hollerbach, replacing them with Yorbe Vertessen and Brenden Aaronson. It was a daring move, as he looked to use their pace to exploit those huge spaces appearing now at both ends of the pitch.
Florian Grillitsch did well to shepherd the Belgian off the ball as he burst down on goal within moments of his arrival.
But still Hoffenheim came at Union, themselves coming off the back of a terrible streak, with Bjelica having to deflect questions about his opposite number, Pellegrino Mattarazzo, during his own press conference during the week. They certainly looked like they were playing for their boss, if they weren't the only ones. Beier held his head in his hands after he twisted and turned but could only shoot wide when he should have hit the target with just over 15 minutes left to play.
Meier, too, drew another save from the unbeatable Rönnow, but his shot had been hit with too little power and from too far out. Beier brought down a ball for Kramaric, beautifully, but the chance was again wasted as he dallied.
The players on both sides were slowing down. Again, Bjelica tried to inject some life into his team, by swapping out the wing backs as one, Jérôme Roussillon and the long missed Juranović coming on for Gosens and Trimmel. The pair had more than earned their break.
The coach’s move would pay off, and proved to be the most decisive change of the day, because it was Roussillon who started the move that lead to Union’s goal, against all the run of play. He found Vertessen who cut inside and laid the ball off for Aaronson, who finished it off ahead of the lunging Grillitsch with a brutal flourish. He roared away in delight.
He spoke later, joyously, and proudly of how he had “needed to stay patient this season. My time hadn’t come,” but it had now. And how. It was his first goal of the Bundesliga season, and what a time to find it.
Bjelica was magnaminous after taking what he called "an important three points", saying, "We had a very tough game against a good opponent," but he continued by praising his own players. "I'm very proud of my team, who kept at it until the end and forced this luck in a certain way."
Union were as if anew after the goal, and it could have been two a moment later, as Juranović’s free kick took the most wicked of deflections and crashed off the back post, before Baumann saved from Vertessen a moment later.
Hoffenheim tried to drag themselves back into things after that, but there was no way back, and through Aaronson could float all the way back home to Köpenick.