1. FC Union Berlin came out 1-0 winners from a tough game against VfL Wolfsburg on Saturday afternoon, the winning goal scored by Danilho Doekhi with a wonderful, typical header from Kevin Volland’s corner at the end of a protracted first half.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Král (81. Jaeckel), Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Gosens (81. Roussillon) – Schäfer (59. Laïdouni), Khedira, Tousart – Volland (59. Aaronson), Hollerbach (70. Kaufmann)
VfL Wolfsburg: Pervan – Maehle, Lacroix, Jenz (46. Zesiger), Rogerio (80. Sarr) – Majer (74. Baku), Svanberg (80. Gerhardt), Arnold, Paredes (74. Černý) – Behrens, Wind
The starting XI
There was a familiar feel to parts of Nenad Bjelica’s starting team, from Frederik Rönnow in goal to a back three seen plenty of over the last year or so here at the Alte Försterei. In the absence of Kevin Vogt, he started Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche and Danilho Doekhi. They were flanked by Robin Gosens on the left and in, what he said would be a necessary piece of improvisation following Christopher Trimmel and Janik Haberer’s suspensions and Josip Juranović’s injury, Alex Král on the right.
His midfield three saw a single change from the midweek mudfight against Mainz, with Lucas Tousart coming back in for Aïssa Laïdouni alongside András Schäfer and Rani Khedira.
The front two remained the same as Wednesday’s clash, too, where Benedict Hollerbach partnered Kevin Volland.
Goals: 1:0 Doekhi (45. + 25)
A drawn out first half sees Doekhi power home late
In many ways the decisive image of this game - a hugely important Union win, after all - was the red bandage wrapped around Andras Schäfer's stitched up forehead. His will to play on, his spirit summed up his side's performance.
But on a long afternoon for when protests would drag the first half to previously unimaginable proportions, Wolfsburg would start the strongest. Lovro Majer found Rogerio, who dragged his shot wide of the right-hand post. Jonas Wind then saw his stabbed effort come back off Doekhi but Gosens was quick to snap into Majer a minute later on Union’s left, continuing where he’d left off against Mainz, when he didn’t stop, all hellish game long.
Gosens was a picture of determination for as long as he was on the pitch. When Union won a throw-in a third of the way into Wolfsburg’s half he was to be seen, gesticulating at his team-mates to push up, refusing to accept any deviation from the plan.
Joakim Maehle went down like he’d been shot in the box under Leite’s attentions, but the referee, Matthias Jöllenbeck, waved his pleas away as he rolled on the lush green turf, and Leite stood over him, a picture of rage at the attempted malfeasance.
Then Union conjured up a move as lovely as the early sunshine illuminating the Gegengerade. Volland starting it on the right, finding Hollerbach in a pocket made by Schäfer, who slid the ball out to Kral. The Czech’s cross was taken on first time by the man at the start of it all, the superb Volland, but he scuffed his left-footed volley well wide.
But then Schäfer and Majer clashed heads with ten minutes played. It was as worrying as it was sickening, both having to be bandaged up on the pitch, but both playing on, refusing to succumb to their wounds as the game re-started, and as Rönnow rushed to the edge of his box to slide a clearance out under pressure.
Both Knoche, with his foot, and Leite, with his head, made crucial tackles to get in ahead of the returning Behrens on exactly (and somewhat ironically) 17 minutes, within seconds of each other, making a point that it didn’t matter how long ago they’d been team-mates. Behrens had only been gone for 11 days. But this was different. And when he went up with Rönnow for Maehle’s deep ball into the box there was only going to be one winner, the keeper plucking the ball out of the sky at the second attempt.
Union were now playing with aggression and cohesion; Tousart and Khedira sweeping up; Schäfer, impish, looking to keep the ball constantly moving.
Hollerbach threw himself spectacularly at a bicycle kick from Kral’s ball in, but he couldn’t reach the cross, before it took another excellent Knoche intervention to stop Wolfsburg breaking through at the other end.
The game was stopped on 26 minutes, as the first of the tennis balls came onto the pitch, the continuance of fans’ protests against the DFL. The players took to the touchline before coming back on, and play re-started, albeit briefly, before the next ones came again and the players were led off the pitch, and down the tunnel. The ground staff busied themselves with their rakes and their divots to cheers from the crowd, giving them a deserved moment in the sun.
After half an hour the players once again returned to the pitch for five minutes of warmups, shuttle runs between two points in front of the main stand, Rönnow paced the width of his box.
Play restarted with his magnificent stop from Wind; he then ran out to claim the ball before Kevin Paredes could run onto it. Volland then chased back to tackle the same man as he jinked past Kral towards the left-hand side of the box. But then came the balls again, this time from the away end. Again, play stopped, and was, again, restarted after more discussions.
The referee indicated there were 21 minutes of time still to play. But it had already been the longest of weeks for Union. "It was the third game in a week for us. Nevertheless, we gave everything, ran a lot and deserved this win," said Bjelica after the final whistle.
Hollerbach, always involved, a now constant whir of limbs and corkscrew curls, pulled a shot wide of the right hand post with ten minutes to go of the half.
Wolfsburg reacted, Maximilian Arnold pinging a shot off Doekhi and out, but from the resulting corner Rönnow claimed the ball with full authority, launching it over-armed into the path of a suddenly breaking Hollerbach like Michael Holding in his pomp.
Union had the scent of something. Their goal was coming.
Gosens got down the left again, hitting a killer ball in first time, but a flying Schäfer’s header was deflected out for another corner. Volland hit it true this time, into the box where Doekhi charged in, heading it full and powerfully past Pavao Pervan in Wolfsburg’s goal. It was a resounding finish, one that proved how much the Dutch centre-half had been missed during his lay-off. His tackling was immaculate, his presence imposing all day. But he would be remembered most for this.
Union hold tight, and celebrate long into the night
Following a free kick, Tousart had a beautiful turn and volley from outside the box flicked over the bar by Pervan almost as soon as the half had started. Union had roared out of the traps. Hollerbach was everywhere, Tousart starting to pull the strings from midfield - fatherhood, apparently, having done him the world of good when many others would be floored by the prospect of sleepless nights and perpetual worry. Doekhi, meanwhile, was magnificent at the back, you could see the confidence he gave his team-mates with every challenge won.
Volland roared past Rogerio, and had the beating of Cedric Zesiger, but the Wolfsburg centre-back went down to ground easily in his own box, but then Majer found a bit of space up the other end, shooting wide when he had a sight on goal from the edge of the box.
Kral was superb, having so much demanded of him in position he is barely used to. Paredes tried to beat him, cutting inside, and again went down easily when he could have taken the ball on. Kral barely reacted, while Wolfsburg players surrounded Jöllenbeck. He waved them away dismissively.
Bjelica, meanwhile, had brought off the tireless and selfless Volland for Brenden Aaronson, and Aïssa Laïdouni for the battered and bloodied Schäfer with an hour (and more) played.
Wolfsburg rallied. Rönnow had to make a sharp stop to his right from either Wind or Knoche, the ball flying dangerously off the pair towards goal, then sweeping up ahead of Majer before he could get in ahead of Khedira.
Aaronson set Hollerbach off on the longest, hardest of sprints, a race that he somehow almost won against Rogerio, winning a corner. It summed him up. It summed them all up.
Aaronson won a corner off Zesiger he barely had any right to, showing strength to match his unshakeable will. When Tousart set him away he chased down Rogerio, Maxence Lacroix and Zesiger in one attack. He didn’t win the ball, but came as close to doing so as anyone could dare to ask.
Bjelica swapped his wingbacks out, for Jérôme Roussillon and Paul Jaeckel. And immediately the backline were back in action, Doekhi, Rönnow and Jaeckel all making vital interventions in the six yard box.
The crowd only grew louder as the clock wore down; as Roussillon tore past Ridle Baku down the left hand side, and as Maehle brought down Aaronson on the turn following Knoche’s superb long ball out, and his quick, chested control.
But by this point Union were happy to play for time, the free kick stroked to the wing as opposed to being whipped into the box.
Knoche, celebrating his 300th Bundesliga game, was tired – he’d given so much - but happy.
“We are pleased that we are once again more difficult to play against in our own stadium and have developed a certain strength at home in recent matches. Of course,” he continued, “our unique fans helped us enormously." They wouldn’t stop.
Wolfsburg fought until the end, winning a rash of corners, but as Rönnow held Lacroix’s header in the final seconds of the game, with the Wolfsburg keeper, Pervan, in the box, and the tension in the stadium crackling like the mains had been plugged into the stands, the roar from the Unioner was deafening.
It may not have been the prettiest win in the club’s history. But it felt, at least for that moment, like one of the most significant.