1. FC Union Berlin and FSV Mainz 05 played out a compelling, often brutal 1-1 draw on a swamp of a pitch in torrential rain on Wednesday evening when Jonathan Burkardt’s opener was levelled by Robin Gosens’ fantastic finish, 13 minutes into time added on in the first half.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Haberer, Knoche, Vogt (63. Leite), Doekhi, Gosens (82. Roussillon) – Laïdouni, Khedira, Schäfer (75. Král) – Volland (82. Aaronson), Hollerbach (63. Vertessen)
1. FSV Mainz 05: Zentner – Da Costa (46. Widmer), Van den Bergh, Fernandes Ribeiro, Caci – Barreiro Martins, Krauß (90. Hanche-Olsen), Onisiwo (80. Ngankam), Amiri (69. Kohr), Burkhardt – Ajorque (90. Gruda)
The starting eleven
Despite his superb performance in the loss to Leipzig on Sunday, Alex Schwolow returned to the bench for Frederik Rönnow to take his place in between the sticks. He was behind the same back three as had started the game in Saxony, Danilho Doekhi, Kevin Vogt and Robin Knoche, with Robin Gosens on the left while – in for the injured Josip Juranović and suspended Christopher Trimmel – Janik Haberer took up the empty position on the right.
For the last game of his own three match suspension from the touchline Nenad Bjelica had good news in the return to the starting eleven of Rani Khedira, alongside Andras Schäfer and, in his own first start since November’s 1-1 draw in Augsburg, Aïssa Laïdouni.
There was a single change up top, the strikers’ positions taken up by Benedict Hollerbach and the returning Kevin Volland.
Goals: 1-0 Burkardt (45. + 8), 1-1 Gosens (45. + 13)
A treacherous pitch, and two late goals
If the last scheduled clash between these two sides in January was cancelled because of the weather, it wasn’t much better here almost a month later. The rain was torrential, the pitch a swamp, a sodden mess. But, considering the league table, it was somehow fitting. Not so much joga bonito as jogar brutalmente. For the onlooker, it was a game of the highest drama, the greatest intrigue; the bloodiest, and muddiest of battles.
If you wanted to see how thing would proceed you could look at Robin Gosens’ early barge on Jonathan Burkardt - as much an indicator for how things would proceed as Rönnow’s launch of the ball into the upper reaches of the atmosphere with his first touch.
As did Hollerbach’s stinging drive that was palmed away uncertainly by Robin Zentner only a minute after that. Hollerbach had continued from where he left off last week, full of running and, fearless, his eyes only on the Mainz goal. But his team-mates seemed up for it too. Volland hit the bar after six minutes, flicking a cross from the right on the volley. Had it gone in it would have been a contender for goal of the month.
It should not be forgotten that the ugliest dogs have the best personalities. This game was superb.
Suddenly it was at the other end where all the action was to be seen. Rönnow made a wonderful double stop from Anthony Caci and Sepp Van Den Berg. But then the ball somehow was back in the box, sinking into the pitch instead of bouncing, Mainz players hitting it into the wall of Union bodies scattered around. Rönnow made another sprawling stop, Ludovic Ajorque stuck his head in and Knoche caught him, accidentally, full in the bridge of the nose.
Ajorque would be back on the pitch and getting a yellow card for a lung on Laïdouni within minutes, his nose patched up and bulging, eyes blackening quickly. He wasn’t to be stopped as both sides tore into each other. Nadiem Amiri dropped a free kick just over the bar, and Schäfer pulled his left footed shot just wide of the near post. Volland was superb. His shot following Caci’s mistake was deflected wide off the flying boot of Amiri with 25 minutes played. Zentner then made another good stop to his right from Haberer’s 25 yard attempt following Schäfers good work in the middle and clever pass out right.
After half an hour Volland’s tireless good work was almost repaid as he sent Hollerbach through, but the ball looped somehow just over the goal as he and Van Den Berg slid at it together through the mire. The ball just would not go in for the former German international. Following his strike off the bar, he then hit the post with five minutes to play with another wicked, swerving shot with his right from outside the box this time.
He called it “unfortunate” later. But one could easily add a “bloody” or any other, unprintable, expletive to the beginning of that sentence.
Before the half was up the familiar sight of tennis balls coming onto the pitch was to be seen, the continuance of fan protests in the Bundesliga. There were nine minutes officially added on but it would prove to be many more; still time for Doekhi to get in ahead of Amiri as the clock ticked well over 50 minutes. But right then when Union thought they might have been safe, the corner it led to was hit well into the box by Amiri, where Burkardt rose superbly through the crowd to flick it past Rönnow.
Mainz lead 1-0, but that wasn’t it, not by a long shot. Haberer, enjoying the space on the wing his right-back position gave, again got the ball out on the wing, and he hit a deadly, looping, almost unplayable cross in from the byline. It swerved back away from goal and dropped to Robin Gosens who volleyed it, left-footed, home at the near post with pace, precision and power.
He said after the final whistle that they’d worked on it, that he and Haberer knew they could always create danger, from one to the other like that. It worked like a charm.
The scores were again level, and it proved to be the perfect ending for a coruscating, compelling half
The battle continues, but there are no further goals
The second half started with Volland causing more problems in the Mainz backline, his clever cut-back ball just beaten away before it reached Gosens in the box, but there was to be little respite at either end, as the game roared back into life. Rönnow made another extraordinary reflex save five minutes in from Karim Onisiwo. He then held Amiri’s clever free kick with the greatest of ease, down to his right; as well as another from Burkardt at the other post ten minutes into the half.
But the tempo notably dropped as the half wore on, and just as the ball would not run, the players, too, found the going ever tougher. Ajorque had the run on Vogt, though offside and untouched he still went down as if poleaxed. It lead to chaos, but Vogt had stretched too far, and he limped off to be replaced by Diogo Leite, just as Yorbe Vertessen came on for the exhausted Hollerbach.
The tiredness was for all to see in the deeply drawn lungs and the heaviness of the players’ steps – as Volland mentioned later - but most notably as Laidouni mis-cleared from a few yards outside his box. What should have been a routine punt away, his volley flew, instead of up field, back into his own box where all Ajorque had to do was head it home.
Fortunately for Union, he too was playing at his very limits, and sunk to his knees as soon as he saw his weak effort going wide of a defenceless Rönnow’s goal.
But Laidouni’s mistake was just that, an aberration. For if many equalled his fight, few showed the technique he also had on the ball in the toughest of situations. He made up for it shortly after, heavily involved in the move that saw Union win a free kick out on the right. Volland bent it towards goal, but there wasn’t quite enough dip on the ball and it sailed over the bar to the host’s relief.
Bjelica’s deputy for these long three matches, Danijel Jumic, reacted the only way he could bringing on Jérôme Roussillon on for Gosens and Brenden Aaronson for a Volland who had done everything but score. They were soon joined by Yorbe Vertessen, but by now the pitch was almost unplayable. One of Aaronson’s first touches, as he went to knock the ball ahead of him to run onto, saw it stick instead in the puddle that was the right wing; as when Vertessen, played through, couldn’t get any pace on his shot as it slumped along the ground like the ball had been deflated along the way.
Union's assistant coach, Marie-Louise Eta, couldn’t compliment their efforts enough after the final whistle, calling the second half “a great battle”. Kevin Volland, though disappointed at his bad luck, also saw the point earned as a good sign. “Ultimately, I'm confident that if we continue to play like this, we'll turn the game around and score several goals again."
At the final whistle their soaking, acheing bodies slumped. But the Unioner knew they’d given everything out there. The track marks on the sodden turf evidence enough for the fight their side had given in the toughest of circumstances.