1. FC Union Berlin: Lennart Grill – Julian Ryerson, Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche, Paul Jaeckel, Christopher Trimmel – Janik Haberer (Milos Pantovic), Rani Khedira, Andras Schäfer (Paul Seguin) – Jordan Siebatcheu (Kevin Behrens), Sheraldo Becker (Sven Michel)
1.FC Köln: - Marvin Schwäbe – Kristian Pedersen (Kingsley Schindler), Timo Hübers, Luca Kilian, Benno Schmitz (Dejan Ljubicic) – Ellyes Skhiri, Eric Martel – Florian Kainz (Jan Thielmann), Linton Maina (Sargis Adamyan),– Jonas Hector, Florian Dietz
Goals: 0-1 (Hübers og.) 3 mins.
Attendance: 49,500 (sold out)
1.FC Union Berlin went into the game against Köln stung by defeat in Europe on Thursday, with some doubting if they could keep their momentum in the Bundesliga. They were wrong. Union won 1-0, and would find themselves, however briefly it may be, on top of the league.
A lightning start; an own goal, a missed penalty, an offside goal.
Urs Fischer had said that Union weren’t thinking about the disappointing loss in midweek against Royale Union St. Gilloise going into this. He said that there were things that needed to be worked upon, that they knew what they’d done wrong in that game, and he was assured by the return of Jordan Siebatcheu to his starting line-up, taking his place alongside the returning Julian Ryerson and Andras Schäfer.
Certainly he will have re-instated the three with an eye on pace, on hustle, on being able to go toe to toe with an 1. FC Köln side who are hewn in the fuzzy and somewhat rugged image of their coach, former Unioner of the year – lest we forget – Steffen Baumgart. Just as the name of Diogo Leite on the team-sheet will have warmed him, too. Before his knock against Schalke, the Portuguese had slipped into Union’s back three like he’d been playing in Köpenick since he was a kid
But Fischer would also have tempered this with the loss of his regular keeper, Frederik Rönnow, who had been superb so far this season, but had got injured in training. His place was taken by Lennart Grill.
And no-one would have been left unmoved by the appearance of Timo Baumgartl on the bench for the first time since the diagnosis of his testicular cancer. That he was here at all was astonishing, the smile on his face broader than any seen at carnival as he felt the turf under his boots, his recovery story one that will give a little hope to so many.
And it started with a bang. Union took the lead almost immediately, with a nice slice of fortune following a neat, classical counter. Jordan brought down a long ball from Grill. It was route one. Kick and Rush, they call it here, dismissively.
But Fischer wouldn’t think of this simplest of set-ups as being a negative. He’d say it was just about perfect.
Jordan slipped it through Luca Kilian’s legs to a Sheraldo Becker who already knew Andras Schäfer was haring into position between the penalty spot and the back post. But the ball took a huge deflection off the outstretched leg of Timo Hübers, the ball changing direction, leaving poor Marvin Schwäbe leaden-footed. The goal was eventually attributed to Hübers. But you know that Becker would’ve gladly claimed it if he could.
Union were buzzing. Five minutes later Robin Knoche rose in the box, winning a header, knocking it further on into the box, but it hit the arm of Luca Kilian, who must have already been wondering why he had even bothered getting out of bed this morning. The referee pointed to the spot immediately. Jordan was there to take it, while Schwäbe messed around off his line, and had to be talked to by the ref. As the Köln players argued, as Steffen Baumgart raged, and as Julian Ryerson stared with intent, boring holes into the back of his head.
But his spot-kick was too close to Schwäbe’s left, it was hit too weakly. The keeper plumped happily down upon it.
Schwäbe’s joy would be short lived. Within a couple more minutes Union had scored a second. Or at least they thought so for a few minutes, for a few glorious moments. Another ball from Trimmel found Becker almost on the goal line. His shot was hard and low, side-footed at the near post with his right from an almost impossible angle. It was a fantastic shot, the sign of a man playing with an elegance and the greatest of confidence.
Union celebrated, but somewhere else, over the rainbow, the video assistants were looking at the footage. He’d been offside.
It was somehow only quarter of an hour into the game and Union could’ve had three. They were channelling Wilson Pickett. Lord, trying to get to a hundred, because 99 and a half just wouldn’t do.
Union were now rampant. Trimmel was overlapping on the right, dovetailing with the baby-faced, grubby-kneed, sharpened-elbowed, and lightning-footed Andras Schäfer. There was a glorious drop of the shoulder from Jordan to leave the rolling ball for Becker. Another cross from the captain after Schäfers neat pass was headed just wide by Jordan.
But Köln would drag their way back into the game. Baumgart doesn’t set his sides up to meekly accept losing. Grill would have to make his first save on half an hour, Linton Maina finding himself with space to shoot, cutting in from the left. The keeper did well, palming the ball away where Robin Knoche hoicked it to safety. He did so too on the stroke of half time, as Köln started to get more and more into the game, sweeping up Jonas Hector’s shot.
It was Hector’s 202nd Bundesliga for the club, and what felt like his first playing as a number ten.
Trimmel was there with only five minutes to play at the other end, doing his other job, blocking a dangerous Kristian Pedersen cross, forcing it out for a corner. He was there, too, to head Florian Kainz’s cross away.
No further goals, a red card, and a confident display
Köln immediately broke at the start of the second half, starting brightly. Grill saving superbly from Maina who’d caught Leite somewhat flat-footed. He’d stood up tall, his arms wide, his wrists like iron. Their battle would take place all over the pitch, a fascinating sub-plot. Knoche was then booked for a foul on Florian Dietz, catching him late as the striker threatened to bear down on goal.
A delightful flick over his head from Becker followed another marauding run by Trimmel, and almost set Jordan free to head towards goal. Trimmel was enjoying himself now, putting his run-around from Thursday behind him, an artful, clipped shot from the right this time striking the crossbar, millimetres away from delicate perfection.
And all the while Jordan had been involved in everything. Blocking at the back, pressuring and harrying up top. The sweat poured off him in torrents as he and Becker were taken off with 15 minutes to go. Though he hadn’t scored, he’d set the tempo. And as for his striking partner… Sheraldo Becker was superb again, at times unplayable. He has developed into one of the finest in the league.
In Sven Michel they have a fine understudy, however. He was immediately linking up with Ryerson on the left, creating angles, making triangles. There were ten minutes to go and you could now only hear the Unioner in their corner, bouncing like this corner of Köln was the sticky floor of the SO36, spelling out their name like on a drunken, joyous edition of Sesame Street.
And today, children, our letters are F, C and U.
Köln would be reduced to ten men for the last few minutes after Kilian’s second yellow card. Union poured at them, switching and moving and passing. Rani Khedira twitching with intensity without the ball, coolness personified with it. Julian Ryerson controlling the left hand side with competence and attacking intensity.
There was a time last season when Union could have given this away, when they fell to second half goals they could have prevented, but this side have learned, they are, in many ways, a different beast. They were assured and they had the calmest of heads, even as Baumgart continued to rage from the touchline and the fans sung their hearts out, and the top of the Bundesliga table showed the most remarkable of statistics.
Union had not only won. They were, for now at least, top of the league.