1. FC Union Berlin lost 2-1 against VfL Wolfsburg on Saturday afternoon, their single goal coming from Robin Gosens who now has three in three starts. But the German international couldn’t hide his disappointment at the final whistle, and nor could his team-mates, despite a battling performance over almost 100 minutes, during which they never gave up hope.
VfL Wolfsburg: Casteels - Rogerio, Jenz, Lacroix (90. Bornauw), Maehle (90. Zesiger) – Gerhardt, Arnold – Wimmer (72. Baku), Majer (72. Tomas), Svanberg, Wind (80. Sarr)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel (73. Juranović), Doekhi, Knoche (85. Kaufmann), Leite, Gosens – Laïdouni (61. Tousart), Král, Haberer (73. Aaronson) – Behrens, Fofana (61. Becker)
Goals: 1-0 Wind (12.), 1-1 Gosens (28.), 2-1 Maehle (30.)
Union had never won in Wolfsburg, apart from a single friendly back in the winter of 2016. Maybe some things are just that way – and it’ll be another season until they get a chance in the league - but still, over 3,500 Unioner packed their corner of the Volkswagen Arena in expectation as opposed to some distant sense of opportune hope.
And if the players didn’t give up (which they certainly did not), their inspiration would come from those majestic fans in the stands, revelling in the glorious sun, and who have now their first ever player to have represented both Union and the modern Germany to cheer. It's somehow absurd, even the most propagandistic of them would admit, for they even have the captain of the reigning European Champions in their midst, though Leonardo Bonucci wasn’t ready yet for his first run-out in red.
Of course, they were talking amongst themselves of Wednesday, of the Champions League, of Real Madrid, but in this they were alone. For Urs Fischer wouldn’t countenance that. Not yet. Not until this was done. His face at the final whistle showed how much his most important of jobs – the Bundesliga and survival in it – is to him. He’s said it hundred times over, it doesn’t matter against whom.
“Every loss hurts.”
Fischer resisted all opportunities to meddle too much with his starting eleven here in the Autostadt from that which lost to Leipzig a fortnight ago. Frederik Rönnow was in goal, fresh from international duty where he must be wondering what he has to do to get past Kasper Schmeichel between the Danish posts, for he has been performing wonders here, week in and week out. It is one of football's, if not life's great mysteries.
Less perplexing, however, was the make up of the five lined out ahead of him; Robin Gosens - the aforementioned German international - and Christopher Trimmel as wing-backs, flanking Diogo Leite, Robin Knoche and Danilho Doekhi at the back.
Alex Kral, meanwhile, continued his role in the middle of the pitch behind the returning (though from injury, not international duty) Janik Haberer and an Aissa Laidouni whose superb goal in Tunisia’s win in Egypt lit up the mundanity of the break.
Up front Fischer returned to his favoured front two, the heavyweight pairing of Kevin Behrens and David Datro Fofana, though smiles were raised back in Köpenick at the re-emergence of Sheraldo Becker on the bench following his injury in the second game of the season against Heidenheim.
Gosens balances out Wolfsburg’s lead, but Maehle extends it
Haberer came back with a bang, hitting the bar following a marvellous ball from Knoche after only a couple of minutes. His initial shot came back at him off a defender, and his return effort looped over a desperately lunging Koen Casteels in goal for Wolfsburg, who just got enough of a fingertip on it to keep it out.
But whether Union had missed him, or he’d missed them, mattered little (though a bit of both is almost certainly the answer) because Haberer’s mixture of trickiness and doggedness had made himself an almost ever-present last season, and he'll almost certainly continue that now back into this one.
His team-mates took his lead. Union looked terrifying in the opening phases. Fofana immediately afterwards charged down the inside left. Trimmel and Laidouni combining on the right, as did Haberer and Juranovic on the left. Leite hit a ball into the box from a position way up field that Fofana headed at Casteels in the Wolfsburg goal.
But it was at the other end the opener would come, and somehow out of nowhere. Wolfsburg’s first moment of pressure lead to a mistake from Behrens. He dallied, losing the ball to Lovro Majer. He found Jonas Wind who needed no other opportunity. Wind is a player in form, and he finished past Rönnow whilst falling backwards, bending the ball inside the back post with ease.
The goal settled the hosts, and quietened Union, even if their majestic fans, away in the corner, never stopped their singing for a second. It could have been two a few minutes later when Rogerio ghosted in at the back post, but he put wide when he should have done better at the back post. Svanberg had found him in space with a deep, searching ball from the right.
It was exciting enough, and played at blistering pace, but the game would shortly explode into life.
Gosens was constantly involved. He made a superb tackle on Wimmer, tracking back, timing his lunge perfectly, leaving the ponytailed winger in a wincing, writhing pile - it was perfectly fair, just hard. But then after half an hour Kral started another move from his spot near the centre circle. He’d done so only ten minutes earlier from a bit deeper, when he went on a bursting run through the middle - and almost finished it off - having laid the ball off for Haberer, but couldn’t direct his header from the returned cross past Casteels.
This time though the Czech midfielder’s ball eventually found the excellent Laidouni, inside right, who killed it with a touch, let it drop, and hit a perfect cross on the bounce into the box where Gosens headed home his third goal in three starts for Union.
Gosens shrugged it off after the final whistle. “It was always one of my strengths, timing my run to the back post”, he said, showing his disappointment at the final score. I, myself should have scored at least one more,” he said.
For Union’s lead lasted barely minutes. Following a corner, punched uncertainly away by Rönnow, his countryman Joakim Maehle volleyed hard from the edge of the 18-yard box, through the crowd, to make it 2-1 for Wolfsburg.
Laidouni saw another wicked drive go wide, Mattias Svanberg saw one from a more central position go safely into Rönnow’s arms. Union pushed hard, but Wolfsburg pressed them back just as well, denying them space in the middle, while keeping Behrens - apart from one moment when he looked almost to have turned Robert Jenz - and Fofana mostly pretty well neutered. Indeed it was they who’d have the final chance of the half as the impressive Maehle shot over.
Union fight, but the second half remains goalless
Haberer was a stand-out until his substitution for Brenden Aaronson with 20 minutes to play. He flashed a header wide just before his exit, but he’d been at it all day. In the first minute of the second half he won a corner through force of will, beating Majer on the left. Though the set-piece lead to nothing, Union would seize upon the momentum it created, Fofana jinking around the edge of the box, Behrens trying to carve out an inch of space within it. They were again the stronger side after the break, Leite stepping up often, leaving the utterly dependable Knoche and Doekhi, safe, guarding things at the back.
But Union lacked a little final incision, which is why after an hour Fischer took off Fofana and Laidouni, replacing them with the returning Becker and Lukas Tousart, finally celebrating his own Bundesliga debut, having crossed over to the red side of the capital in the summer.
Wolfsburg reacted only by stepping further back, retreating into the sanctity of their own half, making things as slow as possible, trying to sap the energy from Union’s player’s tiring legs in the searing heat. They were good, disciplined and clever, sticking to the plan that the Berliner, Niko Kovac, had laid out for them. Gosens had to head Tiago Tomas’s high cross out, Leite had to slide to cut out Svanberg’s low one. Tomas would hit the post with ten minutes to play.
At the other end, as the clock ticked down, Union continued to fight and strive but Knoche saw a header put just over by Casteels after Svanberg’s brutal foul on Becker. Becker’s huge chance with another header flew just wide when it seems he hadn’t expected it to come to him at all.
It just wasn’t to be. Becker volleyed over a couple of minutes into time added on. At the end he then found Tousart who won a corner, and even Rönnow came up for it. Then - a flash of sudden hope! - Behrens headed over with almost the last touch of the game.
He held his head in his hands, but there was little shame here, even if Fischer called it an "unnecessary loss." The head coach lamented the "few good chances that we had unfortunately not used."
Instead, Union will just have to wait a bit longer for their first ever win in Wolfsburg.