1. FC Union Berlin grabbed a vital three points with a 1-0 win over the bottom placed side, SV Darmstadt, on Sunday afternoon. The difference was made by Benedict Hollerbach’s 62nd minute goal.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel, Knoche, Vogt, Leite, Gosens (88. Khedira) – Schäfer (83. Haberer), Tousart, Král – Behrens (90.+ 1 Kaufmann), Hollerbach (83. Aaronson)
SV Darmstadt 98: Schuhen – Klarer, Gjasula, Riedel (15. Zimmermann) – Nürnberger (83. Maglica), Holland (83. Kempe), Franjić (72. Holtmann), Bader – Skarke (72. Vilhelmsson), Justvan - Pfeiffer
Goals: 1:0 Hollerbach (62.)
The starting XI
Nenad Bjelica may not have been allowed to take his spot in the technical area, his suspension meaning that his assistant Danijel Jumic would be acting head coach for the crucial six-pointer against Darmstadt, but his fingerprints were still to be seen on the starting eleven. In goal, of course, and celebrating his new contract, was Frederik Rønnow, behind the same back three that had fought so hard in midweek against Bayern, Diogo Leite, Kevin Vogt and Robin Knoche.
Christopher Trimmel and Robin Gosens were the flying wingbacks, either side of a midfield of Alex Král, Lucas Tousart and András Schäfer at its tip, while the biggest change was in the shape of Kevin Behrens returning to the starting eleven alongside Benedict Hollerbach.
A goalless first half sees Union controlling the ball, but the keepers are largely untroubled
Union’s joy at being back in front of their fans for the first time since the win against Köln, way back before Christmas, showed in the zip of their passing and the movement off the ball as the first half kicked off, but it was a different scene, one at the very end, which was more telling.
Trimmel, his lungs burning, his face betraying signs of the torturous effort, chased 25 yards back to slide a challenge in on Gerrit Holtmann. Holtmann had been on the pitch for 20 minutes, Union’s skipper since the start. He lunged, getting the tip of his toe onto the ball, nudging it away for another moment of blessed safety. They were on the verge of a huge three points, another small step towards safety.
It was his last touch of the game. His first was when he killed a ball easily, lifting it over the head of Julian Justvan before moving it swiftly up the line for Schäfer, who drew a corner from his cross. It was a sign of the pace in Union’s play early on. The excellent, and ever improving Hollerbach skipped past a lunging Bartol Franjic, miles clear of his challenge, as it took a heavy barge from Franjic to knock Behrens off the ball after Vogt had found him with the outside of his boot running into space.
Whether Darmstadt were made to look flat by Union or not is by the by, but Schäfer and Hollerbach particularly looked dangerous in the opening phases, nipping into spaces, interchanging with Tousart, who is enjoying the best period of his nascent career in the red half of the capital. It was Schäfer, Hollerbach and Alex Král’s neat, tricky interplay out by the right-hand side of the box that saw Behrens put wide under pressure at the near post early on.
They seemed to be enjoying themselves as the volume raised and raised and the slowly setting January sun streamed through the gaps of the main stand.
Union were largely in control, Darmstadt barely getting a sniff really until the 25th minute when Justvan scuffed his shot wide, and even when Fabian Nürnberger looked to have beaten Král, the Czech international was back on him in a flash, forcing the Darmstadt midfielder to double back on himself, stopping all his momentum in a flash.
There were cries of disdain when Pfeiffer went down clutching his head after a towering Vogt header away, as there were cheers when Leite blocked Franjic’s shot from the edge of the box a while later, and when Justvan headed wide following Matthias Bader’s ball from the left that he should have at least got on target.
But despite their superiority and possession, Union struggled to make it count. After 30 minutes Behrens won a corner off Christoph Klarer on the right. Tousart hared into the box and headed it, flying, but he couldn’t keep it down. Behrens then put wide after another piece of Schäfer skill saw the ball sit up nicely for him to volley with his left foot, even if the angle was still quite tight. Král flashed another over the bar on 35 minutes.
Union come out flying. Hollerbach makes the breakthrough
The start of the second half saw more action in the first couple of minutes than there had been in most of the first. Král laid the ball off for Tousart who let fly with a stinging drive, just wide of the right hand post as the the dust settled on the tussle between Schäfer and Gosens and their replacement centre-half, Christoph Zimmermann. Then, suddenly, Hollerbach was free, running through on goal, straight up the middle, but Marcel Schuhen in Darmstadt’s goal, did well to stretch a leg out and stop his shot from going in.
Gosens then did well to deflect Andreas Müller’s shot up and over the bar at the other end. Král then won a corner off Christoph Klarer as he tried to clip a cross in from the right. Klarer then floored Behrens as he tried to get on the end of a clever Tousart through ball, but, to the dismay of the baying Unioner in the stands, the referee, Harm Osmers, waved their appeals away.
The pressure would finally tell after 62 minutes. After Gosens won the ball in the middle, Schäfer burst into space with the ball at his toe, taking a couple of steps, seeing Behrens to his right, but Hollerbach gliding into acres of space to his left. He laid the ball off perfectly for the corkscrew haired striker to finish under the diving body of Schuher.
Hollerbach drove on, beating Fabian Nürnberger and a Tim Skarke on his return to the Alte Försterei for the first time since he left Union on loan, in one devastating charge into the inside right channel. He was then an inch too short for Trimmel’s ball into the box a second later as Union marched forwards, a spring now in their step; and his spin to leave Zimmermann for dust was as pretty as a picture.
Robin Gosens then saw a wonderful, scissor-kicked volley, back over his shoulder palmed away by Schuher at the near post.
Though Darmstadt would soon have their best period of the game – Gerrit Holtmann shot wide after Trimmel’s sliced attempted clearance – still, they hadn’t troubled Rønnow. Knoche then hoicked away Tobias Kempe’s shot on the turn, the follow up sailing easily into the keeper’s hands.
Rönnow was full of praise for his defence though, the main reasons he had so little to do. "Our five-man back-line has worked well in the last three games and we've only conceded one goal."
Brenden Aaronson and Janik Haberer came on with 15 minutes to play, turning the tide back in Union’s favour; the former immediately breaking free, passing the ball to Behrens who hared into the box, his shot just stopped by Schuhen. Then Aaronson went again up the middle, choosing to go it alone this time but getting crowded out.
Marie-Louise Eta, taking charge of the press duties in Bjelica’s absence was more than happy. "We're delighted that we were able to put in such a good performance today. We did what we set out to do on the pitch...”
What she meant was that when things grew heated, as the pressure on both sides was telling, Union showed few signs of buckling. As Rønnow expertly held Holtmann’s cross with both hands, and the five minutes time added on wound down, Rani Khedira – on for Gosens - directed everyone away towards the top corner like he was directing planes on a runway. They were holding on to the most vital win of the season so far.
Trimmel’s lunge at the last would be the crowning moment.