As Köpenick residents wiped the sleep from their eyes on Sunday morning, it might have taken a minute to take in that yes, it really was real. There are few things about the current state of things that Union Berlin fans, supporters who cherish such a close bond with their club that they were largely responsible for bringing it back to life when facing ruin, would consider ideal, and many had thought that this was a club that would struggle to deal with football’s current lingering reality more than most.
Yet while the fans wait to be reunited with their team in the flesh, Union’s players are propelling them to new heights on the field. Urs Fischer’s team began Sunday in the Bundesliga’s top four, pushed into the Champions League places temporarily by Saturday afternoon’s impressive 2-0 win at Werder Bremen. The story of this club who began their first top-flight season in 2019-20 as relegation favourites is a beguiling one, and post-match Sky’s interviewer couldn’t resist pointing out to midfielder Robert Andrich that his team were only six points behind Bayern Munich.
“Yes,” Andrich shot back, “but I’m thinking about [being] 14 ahead of third-bottom. We know what the goal is.” The mantra is clear, and understandable. “[These are] results that arouse desire,” wrote Berliner Morgenpost’s Inga Böddeling on Sunday. “Desires that they don’t want to hear about at Union.” Fischer had said before the game that his team is “still a little wet behind the ears” in top-flight terms – but the evidence increasingly doesn’t back this up. On the road at a Bundesliga perennial, Union were anything but naive.
Watching the win at Weserstadion in isolation, you might easily have thought that Sheraldo Becker and Taiwo Awoniyi had been playing together for years, with the latter setting up the former for a smart opener in a swift counter before the Liverpool loanee helped himself to a second before the break, taking advantage of some shambolic Werder defending. Remarkably, it was actually the first time the pair had played as a partnership in the Bundesliga, with Becker moved in from the wing to cover the injured Max Kruse.
Kruse is the headline act, and likely always will be at Union, but it’s not just him that Fischer is unable to call on, with Joel Pohjanpalo and the experienced Anthony Ujah long-term injured. Director of football, Oliver Ruhnert, spoke before the game of “trying to find a solution as quickly as possible” in the transfer window but the existing players are serving the team well. “It feels like there are worlds between the attacking departments of Werder and Union,” wrote Weser Kurier’s exasperated Jean-Julien Beer.
A banner at the entrance to Weserstadion had thanked the visitors for their assist in Werder’s great escape last season, when the Berliners’ 3-0 win over Fortuna Düsseldorf helped to usher Florian Kohfeldt’s team towards the relegation playoff. Union never looked, however, like being satisfied with a pat on the head. They defended doggedly and barely allowed Werder a sniff. As the home players’ shoulders slumped, Fischer’s shouts reminding his players to stay switched on echoed around the empty stands, and met with a response. There is a plan, a mutual confidence and a philosophy. Fischer and his assistant Markus Hoffmann extended their deals last month for a reason.
“It can only be done,” Fischer had said before the match, “with a united team performance” – and he meant the season, not just this game. This is no flash in the pan, as both Bayern and Dortmund could attest having left Köpenick with a total of one point between them. The next two visitors to the Alten Försterei are Wolfsburg and Leverkusen and perhaps after that, we’ll see how close Union are – once again – to making dreams into reality.
• Bayern had another strange afternoon, conceding the first goal for the eighth straight Bundesliga game in a row. Not just against any opponent either, but to struggling, chaotic Mainz, whose winter mini-break of upheaval included the return of Christian Heidel to the board, Martin Schmidt coming back as sporting director and former Huddersfield boss Jan Siewart replacing Jan Moritz Lichte as interim coach (former player Bo Svensson is set to be appointed as the full-time replacement on Tuesday). It got worse as well, with the 05ers taking a two-goal lead into the break.
• Naturally, Bayern responded with interest, but the detail didn’t escape their camp despite the 5-2 final result. Mainz had been “mentally superior” in the first half, scorer of the first Bayern goal Joshua Kimmich told Sky, “and we were lucky they didn’t manage to score a third,” referring to Manuel Neuer’s point-blank save from Danny Latza at 2-0. Leroy Sané, the scorer of an Arjen Robben-esque equaliser before Niklas Süle and a Robert Lewandowski brace saw Hansi Flick’s side home, was equally self-critical. “At the moment, we always need a wake-up call to get to full throttle.”
• Leipzig had been overnight leaders after Saturday’s 1-0 win at Stuttgart, which was much more comprehensive than it looks on paper, with Emil Forsberg having a first-half penalty brilliantly saved by Gregor Kobel and a number of chances coming and going (“a tiresome topic”, as Julian Nagelsmann called it) before Dani Olmo tucked in Angeliño’s cross midway through the second half. It was Leipzig’s fifth straight clean sheet – and they face Borussia Dortmund next Saturday.
• Dortmund, meanwhile, began 2021 by beating Wolfsburg. Nevertheless, it was easy to have sympathy with visiting coach Oliver Glasner’s claim that “we deserved a little more,” and his team really should have capitalised on a fragile-looking BVB in the first half-hour. “We made it difficult for ourselves,” mused Edin Terzic, “and sometimes we have not succeeded in solving these situations.” His players did stick with it and there was the added bonus of Jadon Sancho’s first Bundesliga goal of the season in stoppage time to seal the deal.
• Leverkusen, who should have been Christmas Bundesliga leaders but weren’t after their last-gasp gifting of that goal to Robert Lewandowski, endured more self-inflicted pain at Eintracht Frankfurt, where Edmond Tapsoba’s own goal condemned them to a second straight defeat, and a first away from home in the Bundesliga. All this, as well, after Nadiem Amiri stroked in a sublime opener.
• It was worse for Schalke, of course, with the debut of their fourth coach of the season, Christian Gross, unable to prevent a 30th straight Bundesliga game without a win as they went down 3-0 at Hertha. Tasmania Berlin, whose 31-game winless run is under serious threat, haven’t had as much publicity in years. A small number of their fans left banners outside the stadium to encourage Schalke to break the run and preserve their record.
• On the field it was new year, same old story. “If we play like that,” forward Mark Uth told Sky, “we’re not competitive. I’m looking forward to [Sead] Kolasinac [arriving] now. Those responsible must be active in the transfer market.” Controversial former chairman Clemens Tönnies has indicated willingness to invest, though some at the club are reluctant to accept and players sales and loans are also an option.