On Tuesday night 1. FC Union Berlin defeated VfL Wolfsburg, 2-1, in the DFB Pokal quarter finals. It was an often superb performance in terrible conditions on a day when there were enough distractions off the pitch. The goals were scored by Robin Knoche and Kevin behrens.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranovic, Doekhi, Knoche, Leite, Gießelmann – Seguin, Khedira, Haberer (63. Laïdouni) – Becker (83. Leweling, 90. Roussillon), Siebatcheu (63. Behrens)
VfL Wolfsburg: Pervan – Baku, Lacroix, Guilavogui, van de Ven, Paulo Otavio (84. Cozza) – Arnold, Gerhardt (66. F. Nmecha)– Svanberg (84. Paredes) – Marmoush (75. Wind), Waldschmidt (75. Wimmer)
Goals: 0:1 Waldschmidt (5.), 1:1 Knoche (12.), 2:1 Behrens (79.)
Probably the least remarkable thing to have happened in Köpenick today, as all eyes were trained onto Union for the rumoured, and then cancelled signing of Isco, was that, actually, nothing had changed. They didn’t get where they are today by being subservient to the whims of a star footballer. Union have only made the idea even possible through their values, their determination, through the doggedness and togetherness instilled in them by Urs Fischer, embodied by the stars they’ve built, not bought.
As Oliver Ruhnert explained before kick off in this vital cup-tie against an in-form Wolfsburg, Union couldn’t be dictated to by any player.
But that is the strange world in which Union live. A world in which they can turn down a five times Champions League winner. A world where they were unlucky to lose the DFB Pokal semi-final in the last minute last season, and few batted an eyelid, when there’s still many fans on the stands of the Alte Försterei who remember cup knockouts in the last decade or so against Halle and Rot-Weiss Essen, Viktoria Köln and Kickers Offenbach.
A world in which the 2-0 victory against today's guests, back in September here at the Alte Försterei, made the prospects of another one here far from beyond the realms of possibility.
Fischer made changes to the derby canter of Saturday, bringing Josip Juranovic in for his home debut on the right, and restoring Niko Giesselmann to the left in place of Jerome Rousillon, who had so impressed in his own starting debut at the weekend. Jordan Siebatcheu came back into the starting eleven in place of Kevin Behrens up front and, catching the eye, was the place on the bench for the newsest smart signing through the door, Aissa Laidouni.
A storm off the pitch, early goals on it
The heavens opened over the Alte Försterei just before kick off, a hellish, howling battering of torrential rain came down, came sideways, the wind whipping around the stadium. As a metaphor for the half that would follow, one could only thank the footballing Gods, for the game would swing wildly, both sides having periods of domination.
Wolfsburg tried to use it to their advantage immediately, winning a corner quickly, following on from Maximilian Arnold’s swirling, high crossed ball.
Union countered quickly but it was Wolfsburg who would take the lead after only five minutes. Luca Waldschmidt seized on a moment of unusual Union uncertainty at the back as Yannick Gerhard found him in the box. The Union defence suddenly froze, thinking the striker who has only scored once this year, was offside, but Janik Haberer was playing him on. It should still have been dealt with. Waldschmidt kept his head and stabbed the ball past Frederik Rönnow as simply as could be.
It couldn't have been easier for him.
But Union’s equaliser, only seven minutes later, would be painted with a similar shade of simplicity. It came from a set-piece, and was finished by a defender as so many of Union’s goals have been of late. However, this came from a corner laid off short to Juranovic. He hit a deep, vicious, in-swinging corner with his right where Robin Knoche was all alone by the back post, somehow slipping the attentions of Paulo Otavio. Juranovic’s cross was pinpoint, and the ex-Wolfsburg player only had to sidefoot home. Knoche wouldn't celebrate the goal in front of his former fans. At least not there and then.
Juranovic was showing his menace, and a deadly ability to hit crosses that swung both ways into the danger areas. Doekhi and Leite took turns to step up, and suddenly Union had a new momentum again. Rani Khedira was bustling, everywhere. Jordan and Maxence Lacroix tussled on the edge of the Wolfsburg box. And Sheraldo Becker ran and ran, chasing long balls and lost causes and anything and everything. He was tireless, superb.
Janik Haberer won a corner, which Paulo Otavio contested bitterly. It lead to another deep ball from the right which found Knoche, he headed it once, up in the air, then twice, the second time back across goal where Jordan attacked the ball, and headed it firmly. Sometimes strikers just need a little luck, and Jordan is in one of those phases of everyone's career where it just won't quite go in, and the ball crashed back off the bar
It was open and it was tense at both ends, the game swinging back and forth like the wind. Doekhi had to be careful when put under pressure with his back to Mattias Svanberg, and the striker too close for comfort after 35 minutes.
Otavio managed to stab a shot on goal a minute later that had alarming pace with almost no back lift, an old-fashioned toe-poke, but Rönnow had to be alert to it. Micky van de Ven drove past Paul Seguin, but it came to nothing. Joshua Guilavogui flashed a header wide form Arnold’s corner, but the half finished with no further goals.
Union start stronger, Behrens breaks through
The second half started with Union looking determined. There was a wicked Becker cross, nodded back across goal where Niko Giesselmann contorted himself in the air to squeeze a shot off that dropped just wide of Pavao Pervan’s right hand post. Rani Khedira then hit a 25-yard drive over the bar.
It took a barge from Lacroix to stop a charging Becker down the inside left channel. Their battle on that side was fascinating in itself, the centre half finding himself being dragged further and further out to cover the danger from that flank.
Robin Knoche made a superb challenge to stop Baku’s cross heading into the box. Arnold’s header was headed clear by Leite.
After an hour, Fischer rang the changes, bringing on Kevin Behrens for Jordan, and taking off Janik Haberer to give a debut to Laidouni. He is tall and languid, his long legs covering the ground like Gulliver over the lands of Lilliput. His first action was to rob Ridle Baku and feed Becker. His second was to demand the ball with both hands aloft in the middle when it was with Juranovic. As the clock wound down, he would take on Felix Nmecha with superb close control.
Wolfsburg, however, are a different side to the demoralised one of last year. They were determined, too, forcing Diogo Leite to make a superb challenge on Svanberg. Frederik Rönnow having to come out to claim a whipped in cross.
The game was slowing down as the pitch started to cut up and the players succumbed to the cold and the battle. But gaps were opening up too. Khedira broke with 15 minutes to go, and suddenly Union found themselves three against two, but his ball for Becker was just behind him. Then again, Becker had to be dispossessed by Lacroix in a last ditch effort.
Union’s winner came from a similar position, as Juranovic set Khedira – liberated to roam a little further up by the reassuring presence and solidity of Laidouni alongside him – off again on the right. His ball this time was deeper, higher, and Becker, brilliantly, nodded it down and back across goal on the move, to Kevin Behrens to stroke into the net.
If you thought a storm had broken out before kick off, you should have heard the noise that this one made. The Unioner would have exploded a few moments later had Behrens’s drive not been tipped just over by Pervan.
Things would then threaten to take a turn when Niko Giesselmann got a second yellow card with only a couple of minutes to go for an elbow thrown at Baku, but it didn’t look like there had been much, if any contact. Tempers started to flare on the pitch, but Union are made of strong, calm stuff these days. They saw out the remaining time with little sense of imminent danger.
Indeed, it all ended with Pervan up for a corner, getting caught out as none other than Jerome Rousillon was set free from Laidouni’s long pass to run at the empty goal. Rousillon had come to Union from Wolfsburg, he would never have an opportunity like it, on such a stage in front of his new public, but he couldn’t finish it off. The referee had seen enough with that. And Union’s name could be put neatly, again, into the quarter finals.
As if it was ever so.