1. FC Union Berlin beat Udinese Calcio on Saturday afternoon, 1-0, in a performance far better than seen in any of the friendlies so far this pre-season. They were solid at the back, dogged in midfield and David Datro Fofana capped a superb day by supplying Jerome Rousillon’s winner with some style.
1.FC Union Berlin: Rönnow - Juranović, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon – Tousart (30. Hollerbach), Khedira, Haberer – Fofana (90. Kemlein), Behrens (66. Kaufmann)
Udinese Calcio: Padelli – Ebosele, Masina, Perez (60. Abankwah), Bijol (26. Kabasele), Kamara (79. Ballarini) – Lovric, Wallace, Zarraga (63. Quina, 88. Pejicic) – Beto (rote Karte, 46. Lucca), Thauvin (71. Semedo)
Goal: 1:0 Roussillion (73.)
A case of deja vu
Almost exactly a year ago 1. FC Union Berlin played Udinese at the Dolomitenstadion in Lienz. The same teams in the same place. It was a wild game, Union coming from behind twice to draw 3-3. Robin Knoche got the third, having ghosted into the box to hit home a long free kick first time, but it was a performance crowned by Rani Khedira’s opener, struck from the edge of the box with laser-guided precision.
But despite everything, this game couldn’t have been more different. Union were composed and diligent, solid and they kept their heads when all about were losing theirs.
Apart from the two scorers from last year, only Frederik Rönnow and Janik Haberer remained from that starting XI as the sides prepared to meet again. Urs Fischer, of course, had rested most of his players who had run out in yesterday’s loss to Pafos FC, but it was the first time he’d played his now traditional back three of Danilho Doekhi and Diogo Leite joining Knoche at the back, with Josip Juranovic and Jerome Rousillon on the flanks. Khedira was ahead of them with Haberer and Lucas Toussart making his second start alongside them. Kevin Behrens was partnered by David Datro Fofana up top.
A goalless first half, tempers raised, and a red for Udinese
The game didn’t so much as burst into life as glacially slide into it. The fans enjoying the day on wooden benches in the sunshine, and the stunning backdrop of the “pale mountains”, the Austrian dolomites, with little to distract them on the pitch in the opening minutes.
But Fofana immediately showed why Union were so keen to attract him to Köpenick in the first place; his strength belies his size and he is magnetically drawn towards goal, no matter the situation he’s in. He battled with Festy Ebosele on the right, shrugging him off the ball with his shoulder like he wasn’t there, he then drew a foul from Florian Thauvin on the left, having given the Udinese player little other choice. He was dragged back by Adam Masina after 10 minutes as the Ivorian wriggled around him. He shot wickedly at Daniele Padelli before the half was up, drawing a reflex stop from the keeper.
But Udinese were confident and patient in possession, and occasionally tested that back three in the opening phases. Florian Thauvin drew the first save from Rönnow, though his shot from the left, having cut inside, was probably already going wide.
It took almost half an hour for the first real shot on goal to come, and Behrens did have the ball in the net following Haberer’s header in the box, but the big man was deemed to be offside. It had all come from a promising Union move down the left, they were starting to look more like themselves.
Sadly though, Tousart’s day would end prematurely, he trudged off wincing in pain following a after half an hour. He was replaced by Benedict Hollerbach, getting his second appearance in two days, having only signed on Thursday.
With five minutes of the half to play Udinese conjured a chance, as Sandi Lovric blazed wide following a clever move that went from the left to the right, and back into the middle again. Hassane Kamara had started that one off, as he would the next attempt, but Union’s back line was by now predictably impenetrable, the links between them honed, their dovetailing movements perfectly grooved.
To think that when these sides last met Doekhi, Knoche and Leite hadn’t yet started a game together, and wouldn’t for some time.
They’ve now become some of the best in the business, always there in the right place at the right time. Like their coach likes to say, “you don’t need to be fast in the legs if you’re quick in the head.”
Then, with 10 minutes to play, Udinese were down to 10 men following Norberto Betuncal’s tussle with Hollerbach, that ended with a hair pull on the new Unioner. Temperatures raised, tempers frayed. Shortly afterwards Leite squared up after being pushed, and the referee was grateful to be able to draw the suddenly testy half to a close with it still goalless.
Union the better side. Fofana’s elegance, Rousillon’s finish prove decisive
Udinese were allowed to return for the second half with 11 men on the pitch. This wasn’t about competition, after all. It was about preparation, so Fischer was keen to not disturb the balance of things too much when there were things he needed to see. He would be glad he did so, it makes Union’s performance all the better in its proper context.
Strangely it was from a near mistake from Leite, dallying too long on the ball and finding Juranovic with a panicked pass, that lead to Union’s first chance of the half. He hit it 60 yards, cross-pitch, to the left where Hollerbach held things up. The Croatian roared into view at the edge of the box, but on receiving the return he hit over the bar.
Hollerbach then covered 80 yards himself, dashing up the left, chasing the ball ahead of him, but was stopped as he started to enter the box before he could squeeze a shot off. It was all Union now. Knoche knocked down a corner for Behrens, but he volleyed over from close range. With half an hour to play, Fofana twisted and turned his way around Walace, turning him inside out, before laying the ball off for Haberer. Doekhi drew a fine stop from Padelli, diving to his right, with a header from the ensuing corner.
The opener was coming, and it was little surprise that a delicate piece of magic produced by Fofana would lead to it. He held the ball tight under his heel in the box, following Rousillon's sharply taken throw-in. He was looking at it all the while with a defender tight on him. Then he threw him with the slightest move forwards while rolling the ball back to where Rousillon had continued his run, filling the gap that had been suddenly opened there by the striker's sleight of foot.
Rousillon finished before the keeper had a chance, hitting it with the outside of his left boot, the ball arcing in towards the back post.
Rousillon should have had his second when it was harder to miss than score, skewing the ball wide after it fell to him alone in front of goal following Juranovic’s long throw. He smiled ruefully, his head in his hands.
But he could rest easy as the final whistle blew. It had been his moment that capped an Union performance far improved on those against both Kiel and Pafos, let alone that 3-3 draw against this same side in this same gorgeous place last year.