Union won a wonderful, gripping encounter at the Alte Försterei, 4-2, against a Freiburg side who never knew when they were beaten. The hosts lead 3-0 at half time thanks to Kevin Behrens and Sheraldo Becker's brace; Freiburg clawed themselves back into the game, but Aissa Laidouni supplied the finishing touch when it was most needed.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon (86. Gießelmann) – Schäfer (62. Thorsby), Khedira, Haberer (71. Laïdouni) – Becker (86. Leweling), Behrens (62. Siebatcheu)
SC Freiburg: Flekken – Kübler (32. Sallai), Ginter, Gulde – Sildillia (53. Schmidt), Keitel (53. Gregoritsch), Höfler, Günter (46. Weißhaupt) – Doan, Grifo (82. Jeong) – Höler
Goals: 1:0 Behrens (5.), 2:0 Becker (36.), 3:0 Becker (38.), 3:1 Gulde (56.), 3:2 Grifo (70.), 4:2 Laïdouni (80.)
Attendance: 22,012 (Sold out)
A big day for the skipper
A year and one week ago to the day 1. FC Union Berlin beat SC Freiburg 4-1 at the Europa-Park stadium. It was the second last day of the season, the sun shone down gloriously, and the win meant Union leapfrogged their hosts to go fifth in the Bundesliga table.
Both clubs qualified for the Europa League that year; Union reached the semi-finals of the cup, and Freiburg reached the final. It was the culmination to an unprecedented season of success, and they always seemed to bring the best out of each other.
As Sheraldo Becker hit the byline that day, and crossed with his left foot into the space where Christian Günter should have been tighter on his man, Christopher Trimmel ghosted into the box, heading home emphatically.
It was his 266th game for Union. Today marked his 300th. That game was wild, as was the last time the sides met when Freiburg reversed that 4-1 scoreline. But this was something else.
During his press conference on Thursday afternoon, Urs Fischer refused to be drawn on whether his captain would start of course, saying only that he would never base his decision on emotions – that’s really not his style - just on the lie of the land.
Yet, here he was, leading his side out in the sunshine with three games to play, and Union and Freiburg in fourth and fifth in the table, a mere six goals separating them.
Trimmel started on the right, of course, opposite Jerome Rousillon, with the back-three of Diogo Leite (returning from suspension for Paul Jaeckel), Robin Knoche and Danilho Doekhi, with Frederik Rönnow behind them in goal. In the middle of the park was Rani Khedira, sitting behind Janik Haberer and Andras Schäfer, making his first start for Union in nearly seven torturous months, coming in for Aissa Laidouni.
Up front were Kevin Behrens and the provider of Trimmel’s goal, and another of the goalscorers from that win against Freiburg last season, Sheraldo Becker. Both would make their mark.
Indeed, Becker would steal the show, but before kick off, all eyes were on the skipper. Only three players in Union’s history had broken the 300 mark before him, and no-one in the Alte Försterei could deny how much he belonged in the pantheon of Union’s greats alongside Tom Persich, Lutz Hendel and Joachim Sigusch.
Union superb in the first half. Behrens scores one, Becker adds two
It was Schäfer who started the brightest of all, as if making up for all that time spent training and waiting and watching. He robbed Christian Günter, himself marking his 300th Bundesliga appearance for Freiburg, down near the corner flag. He danced through a gap, his jinking shoulders, outstretched tongue and bobbing head a reassuringly familiar sight.
His team-mates took his lead, gladly.
But of all of them it was Behrens who immediately made the greatest impact, knocking the ball down with his head for Becker. He then repaid the favour, squaring back to Behrens five yards away in the box where he showed all of his strength, all his nous, holding off Kiliann Sildillia, whilst finishing emphatically with his left foot past Mark Flekken. And still only five minutes had passed.
Union roared into Freiburg, they were almost unplayable. Becker took on Christian Günter down the right after Schäfers first time ball into the channel, winning a corner. He then robbed Sildillia on the left, but his cross was cleared. Behrens was dropping deeper, his back to goal, while Becker had his head up, facing it. Haberer was an inch below Behrens’ cross from the right, Schäfer an inch behind Rousillon’s excellent cutback from the left.
Doekhi dropped an exquisite shoulder only ten yards out of his own box, sending Lucas Höler off to buy the papers and back, after almost 20 minutes, as sure a sign of Union’s dominance as anything else. Trimmel drove just over the bar following Behrens’ neat layoff a moment later.
And when Freiburg attacked, Union were resolute in defence; Trimmel nodding the ball out of Lucas Höler’s path, Khedira getting a yellow card as he stopped Nicolas Höfler in his tracks when most needed. Leite stabbed Kübler’s cross away with ease, but Rönnow had to be on his toes to tip his header over the bar a moment later.
Jerome Rousillon, meanwhile - who has got better by the game since his arrival during the winter from Wolfsburg - was aware enough to be in the right place when Kübler then tried to backheel his way through Union's midfield. Rousillon immediately broke, receiving the return on his toe as he strode forwards down the left-hand side.
Becker blazed over the bar after 32 minutes, turning Matthias Ginter inside out as he ran into the box following Khedira’s superb tackle and touch, and Haberer’s smart ball forwards. He was irrepressible, irresistible, and something was coming.
He made it two on 35 minutes after a gorgeous give and go in the box, it all having started with Trimmel’s long ball out, a one-two with Knoche, and a snaking run past two stuttering defenders. Becker found himself one-on-one with Flekken and finished with his right, across the keeper, just how he likes it. It was a goal of coolness personified, the finish of a man flourishing.
It was no less than Union deserved. They were tearing Freiburg apart, and the guests were floored, resorting to niggling fouls to try and stem the tide, not to mention the deafening volume from the stands.
But that was of nothing to what would come next. Only two minutes later Becker picked up the ball some 25 yards out, a little to the right, and was allowed to look up. It was a critical error, for he was having the game of his life. Becker drove the ball inside the back post, a stunning finish, and Union skipped into the tunnel for half time as if they’d barely had to run at all.
Freiburg fight back, Laidouni makes certain of things
The second half started much as the first had ended, Becker picking up Sildillia’s loose ball and running at the struggling Freiburg defence. They managed to get back in time as he meandered around the edge of the box, waiting for a hole to open up, instead passing to Schäfer who shot wide of the back post from outdide the box.
Sildillia tried to make up for his mistake five minutes later, sensing Rönnow off his line and letting off a looping shot from the right, but the Union keeper was more than equal to his half-hearted attempt.
Union had settled into a rhythm, but maybe they were guilty of taking things a little too easily as Freiburg clawed a goal back ten minutes into the second half, Manuel Gülder nodding past Rönnow from inside the six-yard box. They suddenly had a bit of momentum, an edge missing for the previous hour
Then Noah Weißhaupt was caught by Trimmel, much to the disdain of a stadium who saw nothing other than a clean tackle from the skipper. The free kick found Ritsu Doan, but his shot into the crowd was cleared. There was a video check to see if it had struck a hand on the way, but it was overruled.
They shook themselves down, Freiburg thought they were back in this, and they got a penalty after Doekhi ran across Roland Sallai in the box. It went again to a video decision, again with the Unioner’s ire rising in the stands and the players remonstrating with the ref.
But Vicenzo Grifo Panenka’d the spot-kick, cheekily, down the middle – indeed, he almost made too little of it - but Rönnow had already gone the other way. From Union coasting, they were now only a goal to the good, 3-2.
Fischer brought on Morten Thorsby and Jordan Siebatcheu for Haberer and Behrens, to be joined by Aissa Laidouni for Andras Schäfer with 20 minutes to go, needing to assert themselves again, to wrest control back of a game slipping somehow out of their hands.
The game grew wilder by the minute. Attack followed attack. Foul followed foul.
Höler brought down Rousillon inside Freiburg’s half, but Trimmel’s free kick came to nothing. There were calls for a penalty as Laidouni was brought down on the edge of the box, then Thorsby was just underneath a header in the box, and Jordan couldn’t finish a chance at the near post set up for him by Becker. Thorsby - one of the most decisive figures on the pitch as the game reached its corruscating end period - rose at the other end, flicking a dangerous ball away from the attentions of Kimberly Ezekwem. He robbed Doan a few minutes later on the right.
Knoche launched himself at the feet of Sallai as he charged into the box with perfect timing.
But there was to be yet another twist as Jordan won the ball near the centre-spot with ten minutes to play. He put a perfect through ball for Becker into the inside right channel, who chased onto it, spotting an unmarked Laidouni haring into the box, all alone. The Tunisian international scored his first ever goal in an Union shirt easily with the instep of his right boot, and he couldn’t have ever chosen a better time for it.
It wasn't over though. Freiburg hit the bar at the other end almost immediately, the ball dropping seemingly over the line, but once again Thorsby was there to head it clear by the tiniest of margins.
It had been a superb game, a wild struggle deserving of two teams who had given everything, who had reacted to last years’ European qualifications only with better performances than ever before. If held up as bastions of what is possible in the Bundesliga with a bit of sense, a bit of planning and a tonne of spirit, they also somehow bring the best out of each other every time.
But for Union, particularly, this was about more than revenge. They had fought, they had then fought back, and have ultimately qualified for the Europa League again next season. Their collective achievement is something else.
Trimmel took his place as the man of honour after the final whistle in front of an adoring, raucous Waldseite, but it was to the whole squad that this victory belonged. They stayed behind long after their captain had left the pitch.
And, much like the game that had preceeded it, it was utterly majestic.