1. FC Union Berlin were knocked out of the DFB Pokal on Tuesday night away at VfB Stuttgart, despite a performance when they gave everything to come back from Deniz Undav’s single goal with almost the last kick of the first half.
VfB Stuttgart: Nübel – Ito, Zagadou, Anton, Stenzel (80. Mittelstädt) – Stiller, Karazor, Jeong (67. Millot) – Führich (90.+3 Haraguchi), Undav (80. Stergiou), Leweling (67. Silas)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel (80. Gosens), Knoche, Leite, Roussillon – Laïdouni, Král, Volland (71. Aaronson) – Hollerbach (80. Tousart), Behrens (58. Kaufmann), Becker
Goal: 1:0 Undav (45.)
A determined Urs Fischer sent his side out onto the field for this cup tie, for the first time since a couple of halves of pre-season, not with a five at the back, but a flat four. If at first it seemed revolutionary – this former defender's dedication to his defence has become almost the stuff of legend - it was worth remembering that it was only in Fischer’s second season that he had started using his now traditional three (or five depending on who has the ball) at the back. Though it may have raised an eyebrow, this wasn’t the reinvention of the wheel.
Frederik Rönnow was in goal to the disappointment of Alexander Schwolow who was slated to start for the first time since joining Union but pulled up only during the warm-up. He was behind Jerome Roussillon (himself getting his first start since the first round of the cup) on the left, Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche and Christopher Trimmel, playing as the most traditional of right-backs.
Alex Kral came back into the centre of midfield, with Aissa Laidouni next to him. Kevin Volland made the diamond with them, or seen another way, anchoring a front four with Sheraldo Becker, on the left, Kevin Behrens up top and a Benedict Hollerbach getting his first ever start, on the right.
Stuttgart start well, Union claw them back; Undav slips through with the final kick of the half
It was the hosts who had the first shot on goal, though one way over from distance, hit by Pascal Stenzel, after Atakan Karazor had wandered into a bit of space up the middle. Stuttgart looked confident, buoyed by their win at the Alte Försterei a week and a half ago and their lofty position in the league.
Chris Führich caused immediate problems on their left, dancing his way into a pocket down by the byline, But Union weren’t to be cowed- so easily. They were here to fight. Kral and Laidouni snapped into early tackles in the middle, and Hollerbach got a bit of wind behind him, shifting inside and letting off a shot that flew just wide of the right-hand post.
VfB were sharp though, and full of shimmering pace up the flanks particularly, and it took a good block from Leite to stop Deniz Undav’s drive from just outside the box after 12 minutes. Jamie Leweling got regularly down the right, but overhit his first cross, as Knoche headed away the constantly busy Führich’s shot from the inside left. Leite was alert to cut out Leweling’s curling ball from the wing before it reached Undav after 25 minutes.
But if Union were riding their luck at times, they also had a plan, and it almost came to fruition as they created the best chance of the game so far, against the run of play, when Laidouni crashed a superb, right footed shot onto the bar from 25 yards. It dipped and it bent and it left Alexander Nübel for dead. He smiled ruefully as he turned away and as the ball continued its long drop down like a meteorite into the stand behind the goal.
Then, suddenly Stuttgart countered, and the Unioner could only hold their breath as Undav scuffed a shot with his left from the edge of the six yard box (or rolled it precisely like a lawn bowler on his best sunday). It dribbled agonisingly across goal, past Rönnow, but came back off the back post.
This happened, though, during Union’s strongest phase of the half, as they started to find each other with the ball more regularly, and the space in which to move it. When not hugging the left wing, Becker was drifting inside and when not sweeping up in the middle, Kral was pushing up.
Hiroki Ito started to find a bit of room on the left-hand side for Stuttgart, and again it seemed as if Union were just holding on, especially when Jamie Leweling was so determined again to prove a point as he was against his old side last time. Even though he stumbled, he managed to right himself and find space to shoot from the right with a couple of minutes to play.
Union were content to ride the time out.
And they thought they had, but suddenly Ito burst down the left into a cavernous gap, he crossed deep for Leweling whose shot was saved by Rönnow. The Danish keeper could only palm it out as far as a looming Undav, however, who swept home ahead of the onrushing Knoche from five yards out to make it 1-0 for Stuttgart with almost the last kick of the half.
Rönnow kicked the post. Leite knelt on the floor.
Union battle, but the hosts hold on and the gaffer sees red
It took a superb block from Zagadou to stop Volland after a delightful pair of touches from Laidouni and Becker, almost as soon as the game had re-started. Fischer had made no changes, and Union looked determined, the bit between their teeth, and even when Stuttgart pushed up they closed the spaces, pulled everyone back. Leweling drove at Rönnow, while Führich tried to be too clever on the left and put the ball out of play.
Becker won a free kick as he cut inside from the left, brought down clumsily by Pascal Stenzel. Trimmel stood over the ball and whipped it in with his right, but Alexander Nübel was quick to come out and punch clear. Hollerbach blazed his return over the bar.
It was far from the tidiest of spectacles. The rain was constant, and the noise incessant, and neither side could fully assert themselves over the other. The ball flew across midfield, back and forth, back and forth. But Union were fighting to the last, Kral’s tackle on Stenzel was a sign of this, when he rushed him like a sugared up trick or treater near the half way line; when Trimmel drew a foul having burst past Karazor in the same place; or when Laidouni played the sweetest of balls out to Hollerbach on the right.
But things also just wouldn’t run in Union’s favour. Trimmel said later that he knew Union were doing enough right. "I am convinced that if we approach every game like we did today and show pure fight and passion on the pitch, we will get out of this situation," he said. he was right.
Roussillon pounded the ground in frustration when seeing the ball bounce just out of reach with 25 minutes to play, and Führich was fortunate to rob Trimmel a moment later as Union pressed and pressed to try and force a change of momentum. Hollerbach, having his best game for Union, saw his ball inside to Volland take the slightest of touches, sending it away from danger, as it was on its way into the box.
Fischer brought on Mikkel Kaufmann for the ailing Behrens, and Brenden Aaronson for Volland. Stuttgart started to play for time. Becker held off Stenzel, the Stuttgart right back went down holding his head, and as soon as he got back up Union’s striker laughed and pointed where his watch should be.
Fischer made more changes, bringing on Lucas Tousart and Robin Gosens. Tousart picked up a yellow soon after for a lunge on Silas. Silas shot wide soon after, when he should have passed instead.
With only minutes to play Laidouni was the only one back as Rönnow had gone up for a Rousillon set-piece, clearing up before he was put under too much pressure under the counter-attack, but that was about the only thing that went Union’s way as they were well into the five minutes added on by the referees assistant. Rousillon went down under a hefty blow trying to get to Becker’s cross.
To add to the bitterness of the result, Fischer was shown a red card after the final whistle as he protested, as was Union’s goalkeeping coach, Michael Gspurning.
He shook his head afterwards, saying later, "it was a great reaction from my team". He couldn’t believe it. But then it was that sort of a night.