1. FC Union Berlin had a chastening afternoon on Sunday, losing 4-0 to the excellent, table-topping Bayer Leverkusen. The hosts’ goals came from Alejandro Gimaldo, Kouakou Kossounou, Jonathan Tah and the substitute Nathan Tella.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen: Hradecky – Hincapie, Tah, Kossounou – Grimaldo, Xhaka, Palacios (87. Andrich), Frimpong (81. Tella) – Wirtz (87. Mbamba), Boniface (Hlzek), Hofmann (81. Adli)
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović (46. Trimmel), Jaeckel, Bonucci (23. Knoche), Leite, Roussillon (78. Gosens) – Král, Laïdouni – Haberer, Fofana (78. Behrens), Becker (64. Aaronson)
Goals: 1:0 Grimaldo (23.), 2:0 Kossounou (57.), 3:0 Tah (73.), 4:0 Tella (83.)
Urs Fischer made just a single change from the side who performed so creditably in midweek in Naples. That was simply the enforced change of the suspended Rani Khedira for Alex Kral in central midfield, where he was to be joined by Janik Haberer and Aissa Laidouni.
That meant that the back three of Diogo Leite, Leonardo Bonucci and Paul Jaeckel – who Fischer was keen to praise during his pre-match press conference – flanked by Josip Juranovic and Jerome Roussillon, on the right and left respectively.
Up top he had once again gone for the explosiveness of Sheraldo Becker and David Datro Fofana, himself buoyed by his first competitive goal for the club.
Leverkusen in control, Grimaldo opens the scoring
Despite the final result, Leverkusen actually started slowly on a crisp Sunday afternoon, easing themselves into a game that would take a while for the game to spring into life. Indeed, it actually all started off a little scruffily. Kral robbed Florian Wirtz in the middle, Wirtz was robbed by Roussillon, Exequiel Palacios sent an attempted through ball way into touch. But the Leverkusen midfield were quick to smother Union on the few occasions they got the ball, pinging passes back and forth when they had it.
Union were backing themselves at the back, such as when Jaeckel did well to outjump Boniface – who Union know all too well from last season’s thousand games against his Royale Union Saint-Gilloise side – after eight minutes. Fischer was encouraged by their performance at first, as he was keen to laud the superb support from the travelling fans, away in a small corner of the stadium.
Boniface then scuffed a shot with his left when on the edge of the box. Becker did superbly to chase him down shortly after that after Leverkusen broke at pace, from left to right and back again. Laidouni nipped in ahead of the Nigerian striker after 15 minutes, when Wirtz’s cutback seemed to be heading straight for him.
Rönnow made the difference for Union, repeatedly. He had to be sharp to race out, diving at the feet of Wirtz, howling at his defenders when he had successfully returned to his goal.
He saved brilliantly from Boniface’ downward header point blank, reacting like a shot with both hands. With ten minutes to play Kouakou Kossounou danced around the ball in the box, laying it off for Jeremie Frimpong. Again, Rönnow did well to palm his shot away for a corner.
The hosts thought they had a penalty after quarter of an hour, as if out of nowhere, when the ball struck the top of Jaeckel’s arm as he challenged Jonathan Tah at a deep-swinging corner. He knew nothing about it.
The players surrounded the referee as he pondered his decision, before going off to check the video replay. It took half a lifetime, or so it felt, and at the end, all Leverkusen got out of it was a corner.
But despite all their possession, Union were still largely solid at the back as the half wore on, their lines straight and clear, all hands on deck. Roussillon, relishing his return to the side, tackled and turned Grimaldo in his own box. As Fischer said later, "They didn't have too many opportunities from play in the first half, but when they open up like that, there's nothing you can do."
He was aluding to the moment when Wirtz and Grimaldo exchanged a couple of lightning quick passes just outside the box. Grimaldo struck the ball first time with his left, across and over Rönnow, a superb, devastating finish.
If their hosts were improving by the minute, Union’s luck also wasn’t in at all. Palacios wiped out Fofana from behind as he started to go up the middle. Fofana tried an extravagant little backheel to Becker following Roussillon’s neat ball up the line, but Frimpong had seen it coming. Granit Xhaka timed his slide well to dispossess Becker as he tried in vain to conjure something going forward.
Fofana slipped with five minutes to go the ground disappearing from under him as he tried to reach a Knoche long ball with no-one around him.
Knoche, on for the injured Bonucci after only 23 minutes, slid in to stop another ominous Boniface-bound ball.
There were times when Union couldn’t lay foot on ball, but their best effort of the half came in the 42nd minute when Hradecky saved Haberer’s header from Becker’s cross. The Leverkusen players had grown more dominant as the half wore on, making triangles, pushing and pulling Union everywhere but which way, Granit Xhaka a metronome, Wirtz a flashing blade, whose best chance came on the stroke of half time when he drew another fine stop from Rönnow, this time diving to his left at full stretch.
Leverkusen turn the screw, Union all out of luck
Fischer changed Juranovic for Trimmel at half time, but still Leverkusen moved the ball around with expert precision, Piero Hincapie’s backheel to get himself out of trouble early on a perfect case in point. They would carry on where they left off, their lofty position in the table a reflection of their skill and dexterity with the ball.
Laidouni, constantly offering himself up, always hunting, shot straight at Hradecky from 25 yards. He won a corner having slipped Fofana in with a delicate slider ten minutes into the half as Union tried to assert themselves in the Leverkusen half. His clearance when challenging Boniface was a thing of stinging brutality, the ball speeding away for a corner he was certain had taken a touch first before being given for a corner.
Union would rue the referee’s call, and Fischer said that it summed up Union's luck. "The fact that the corner before the second goal was unjustified just fits the picture." He wasn't deluding himself though. In his press conference after the game he also shook his head at the "too many mistakes made".
For the corner was hit deep towards the back post where Kossounou rose in the crowd to power a header home and, as simply as that, Eintracht lead 2-0.
Boniface caused havoc, running at Knoche, and it took a last second intervention from Roussillon to nod Frimpong’s looped effort over the bar from practically on the goalline. As it took all of Leite, Laidouni and Haberer to take it back off him with half an hour to play, yet still, somehow, Leverkusen ended up with the ball again. It was that kind of a day for Union.
Union didn’t give up hope. Fofana skipped past Tah, hitting the byline but was expertly bundled over by Hincapie before he could cross back across goal.
Laidouni found Aaronson, on for Becker, but Kossounou shrugged him away, and Bayer countered again, using the full width of the pitch, the ball as if on one of the strings swinging the spider-cam over the pitch. Laidouni got in front of Frimpong after another superb Boniface diagonal pass into the box.
The resulting corner led to Leverkusen’s third, as, after a moment of chaos in the box, Tah popped up at the back post and cleverly lifted the ball with the side of his foot over a Rönnow who could do little about it.
Fischer replaced the tireless Roussillon with Robin Gosens and the luckless Fofana with Kevin Behrens with ten minutes to play, the striker immediately getting on the end of a Laidouni pass, and narrowly missing a Trimmel ball into the box.
But soon after that it was all done. Leverkusen broke again at pace, the ball finding its way into the path of the substitute, Nathan Tella, who lashed it into the roof of the net without breaking stride having darted into the box. It was practically his first touch of the game, as it was the final nail in Union’s coffin for the day.
Leverkusen had been superb, and are atop the league on merit; the good news is that Union will face few harder tests than them this season.