Union lost 2-0 to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, despite having had the majority of the ball and certainly the lion’s share of shots on goal, particularly during a much improved second half display. But an Andrej Kramarek penalty and a sliding Max Beier shot, both in the first half, were enough to finish off the hosts.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović, Doekhi, Bonucci (80. Kaufmann), Leite, Gosens (80. Roussillon) – Tousart (75. Laïdouni), Aaronson (46. Fofana), Haberer – Becker (69. Hollerbach), Behrens
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim: Baumann – Kabak, Brooks, Vogt – Kaderabek (90.+2 Akpoguma), Stach, Skov (73. Becker) – Kramarić (73. Bülter), Prömel – Weghorst (55. Bebou), Beier (55. Berisha)
Goals: 0-1 Kramarić (22. Pen), 0-2 Beier (38.)
Urs Fischer had made only a couple of changes for this return to the Bundesliga, a return to the daily business in search of his famous 40-point mark. As he’s said a hundred and one times over, Union can put the Champions League behind them. His main job is to ensure safety in the league, and it’s days like this that only serve to illustrate the nature of his point.
For they could still play well in places and lose. But this was of a different sort to Real Madrid in midweek, where the bitter 94th minute winner still felt a little like it had been coming. Union threw everything at Hoffenheim, particularly in the second half, but they simply couldn't find a way through.
There were few surprises at the back, where Josip Juranovic and Robin Gosens flanked Danilho Doekhi, Leonardo Bonucci and Diogo Leite, fresh from their heroics during midweek at the Bernabeu, where they had fought like tigers. Doekhi had been domineering, Bonucci, hardly looking like a man who was playing his debut for the club (and today would be his Bundesliga debut at 36), and Leite having had one of his best games since joining Union. He had risen to the occasion, his timing immaculate, his leadership inspiring. Again today he was excellent.
Behind them, of course, was Frederik Rönnow, the spider in blue.
Also in midfield the only changes were the return of Janik Haberer on the left for Aissa Laidouni, who had earned a break more than anyone ever has - even if he will not have seen it that way, players rarely like to be rested, even when the lactic acid is choking up their extremities – and Lucas Tousart stepping into a lone position as holding midfielder, following Alex Kral's late withdrawal - a safety measure following his knock in Spain.
And ahead of them Fischer had gone for a retro feel, for the first time this season starting Sheraldo Becker alongside Kevin Behrens up front.
Union dominate early, but Kamaric and Beier both score for the guests
Union moved the ball about with a lightness of touch as the game started, maybe removed from the pressure of the mental and literal hugeness of the Bernabeu and the heartbreak of the late loss there. Indeed, Gosens and Leite, Bonucci and Toussart, were making triangles, finding Behrens holding the ball up top. The former Hertha player, John Anthony Brooks barged into him with little elegance early on. Gosens slipped the ball out to Haberer who put it through the legs of Ozan Kabak, and they looked far the better side.
They looked sharp, enjoying themselves, even, glad to be home where the immediate call and response of “Eisern” and “Union” thundered around the Alte Försterei. Haberer shot wide after only five minutes from the right. Gosens artfully and athletically brought down a long ball from Leite up the line on his left toe at full stretch before whipping a cross into the box.
Doekhi stumbled under pressure from Wout Weghorst, but Bonucci was there to clean up, and immediately Union broke at the other end; Becker put through, he tried to put a delicate chip over Oliver Baumann’s head as he came off his line, but didn’t get enough on it. Brooks then had to dive to head clear Juranovic’s cross from the right after 15 minutes. Aaronson flashed wide a couple of minutes later from the edge of the box.
So it was against the run of play that Hoffenheim took the lead after 22 minutes. Ozan Kabak put a ball over the top for Andrej Kramaric to bring down, Rönnow came out, Bonucci got there first, and the Hoffenheim player hit the ground. If the crowd roared their disbelief, the referee, Deniz Aytekin, was certain. Kramaric himself took the spot-kick himself, hitting it to the Dane’s left with enough pace and precision to give him little chance.
The goal seemed to take the wind out of Union’s sails, though they still snapped into challenges, and looked most likely to cause any danger on the break; and when Kramaric this time rose for a high ball against Bonucci there was only ever going to be one winner, and the Hoffenheim player shrugged as he was beaten with the greatest of ease.
Union had brought things back under control, if not causing as much panic at the back for their guests as they had in the first 20 minutes, when the next blow came. A long, searching crossfield pass found the former Unioner, Grischa Prömel out right. He slipped the ball in towards the back post where Max Beier slid in to finish with his toe. It was as easy as that.
Then for a moment there was panic as it seemed as though Hoffenheim had another penalty. This time Beier had gone down, only a minute or so later. Again Kramaric stood over it, ready for his spot-kick in front of a seething Waldseite, but a call came in from afar, and Aytekin changed his mind, it had been just outside the box. It did little to becalm the whistles, Kramaric chipped it in and Pavel Kaderabek headed over.
Union countered, winning two corners in a row. Juranovic hit the second into the box, Behrens nodded it back across and Gosens flew a volley at it. Again, it was headed wide for another corner. There was still time for Becker to bend a cross in from the left and for Juranovic to go on a charging run up the middle, drawing a yellow for Kramaric when he was tugged back.
The free kick, however, came to nothing and Union went into the break licking their wounds.
Union up their game, but Hoffenheim hold on for the win
After the game Fischer would call the first half a "Non-performance", and he went for broke, immediately bringing on David Datro Fofana for Aaronson at half time, to play up top alongside Becker and Behrens. Union improved, he said "in the second half it was the way it should be, the team showed what it is capable of."
Behrens robbed Brooks - he did the same ten minutes later on Anton Stach, showing his intent, taking the lead - and he found Becker whose slide rule pass to Fofana didn’t quite make its target, snuffed out by a desperate Hoffenheim lunge. But at least Union were showing their intent immediately. Becker was certain Robert Skov had handled in the box after fifty minutes.
But the substitute Ihlas Bebou, who would have a superb running battle with Leite throughout the half, saw his shot deflected wide when Hoffenheim broke at the other end of the pitch after Doekhi was uncharacteristically shrugged off the ball. The ensuing corner was played short but Union won the ball straight back.
Union's best chance so far came as Becker tried to play in Fofana, but Baumann had rushed out just in time. He was however out of position as the ball came back to Behrens, whose shot from 25 yards rolled agonisingly past the right hand post by millimetres. Then he had a another chance, Becker finding him this time, but Baumann was in the right place to save from the big man this time. Becker saw another dangerous cross cleared out for a throw, and Tousart’s goal bound shot was palmed just wide. He would see another go wide of the far post.
Fofana juggled on the turn, Kevin Vogt just knocking the ball away in time before he could set himself to shoot. Then he beat Vogt again, as well as Kabak, dancing at blistering pace into the box, winning another corner that Gosens headed superbly towards the back post. Baumann had to fling himself at full stretch to turn it wide. There were 20 minutes to play and Union were throwing everything at Hoffenheim now.
Fischer had taken off Becker with half an hour to go for Hollerbach, then he brought on Laidouni for Tousart.
Leite got a yellow card for bringing down Bebou whilst on the floor following an elbow to the face, himself. Aytekin then waved away Juranovic’s claims when he was pulled down in the box. Union weren’t giving up, and Fischer made more changes as the clock ticked down, bringing on Mikkel Kaufmann and Jerome Roussillon, practically playing five up top for the final ten minutes.
Laidouni clipped one into the box for Kaufmann; Hollerbach won a corner on the left that Juranovic hit short back to him. He then won another, it flashed across goal and no-one could quite get on the end of it.
Fofana jinked through the middle and Haberer hit one into the crowd; Fofana then saw one palmed just wide after Juranovic played him in sweetly. Behrens headed a corner over.
It was desperate, frantic stuff, but they just couldn’t find that killer blow. Tempers were raised as Finn Becker cynically pulled Juranovic back, getting a yellow card – and a shove from the livid Croatian as well for good measure - as he got the better of him down the right. Hollerbach, having his best appearance for Union, drove, but again it took a flick off a Hoffenheim defender.
Union won corner after corner, cross after cross, they hit shot after agonising shot, but nothing would go in, and it would be the story of their day.
"Such phases are also part of the development of a team," said Fischer of Union's four losses on the bounce. "You have to be able to deal with them. It would be nice if it was always downhill, but sometimes you have to take a step back to make two steps forward."
Still, the players looked dejected as they did their final lap after the final whistle, Trimmel leading them, Bonucci taking it all in impassively, with the magnificent fans cheering them all the way, singing their hearts out, despite the result.
Not that it mattered to them – they’d be there at the final whistle anyway. But Union will play worse than this and win this season.