Many said it wouldn’t last for long, and it didn’t. They had enjoyed 48 days on top until being dethroned – obviously – by Bayern Munich on Saturday, the combined effect of the champions’ 6-2 shellacking of Mainz and of the weekend’s scheduling. This time Union Berlin had to go second and come from behind, but they were ready.
They were ready even in the seventh minute of stoppage time, when Danilho Doekhi applied the headed finish to a short corner routine to spark wild celebrations at the Alte Försterei and restore them to the top of the Bundesliga, just a day later and at the end of an afternoon on which it looked like pride would be maintained, but bigger dreams would be put into a more realistic framing.
Dreaming but fully conscious is Union’s state at present, with their greater savvy and awareness helping them sniff out yet another win in this extraordinary season. Borussia Mönchengladbach could have done with a dose of Urs Fischer’s smelling salts, perhaps. “You just have to be awake,” said Christoph Kramer of his team’s collective nod-off at that final set piece. Union had been second best in the first half and took their time to get going after the break as well but, as time went on, there was a growing feeling that Gladbach were struggling to hold back a rising tide. It looked as if they had been breached before in the closing minutes when Christopher Trimmel’s back-post header found the corner, but on VAR inspection it was ruled out for a narrow offside. Yet the hosts had another big moment up their sleeves.
“We had a good 70 or 80 minutes,” bemoaned Daniel Farke, the Gladbach manager, and he wasn’t totally exaggerating – but this is what Union do. They don’t need loads of territory to control a game situation. This is not just a club that is superbly managed off the pitch, but on it as well. Union’s intelligence and sangfroid is maybe even more impressive than the repeated emotional effort.
They had one of those nights on Thursday, inching to a home win against Braga to leave them within a match of reaching the knockout rounds of the Europa League, which would be their first post-Christmas European involvement. Less than 72 hours later here they were, same place, doing it all over again.
There were potential heroes as far as the eye could see – Doekhi, Kevin Behrens, who bravely headed in the equaliser and took a fist in the face from goalkeeper Tobias Sippel for his troubles, the crowd who as ever pushed their side beyond their limits – but this felt like a day for Fischer to get his dues. He called it perfectly, using his five substitutes well (“they all pushed the game forward,” he enthused), a delicious irony when you consider how many worried that expanding the scope for changes would favour the bigger clubs. Fischer dared to take off his excellent forward duo of Sheraldo Becker and Jordan Siebatcheu, who have done much to get Union this far, and was rewarded with one sub, Behrens, scoring and another, Jamie Leweling, assisting the winner.
None of them were the outstanding forward on the pitch; that was Marcus Thuram, who was a whisker away from scoring an unbelievable goal during Gladbach’s strong first period, backheeling the ball over goalkeeper Frederik Rønnow only to head it narrowly over when he picked it up on the other side. Yet the idea of capturing the Union magic is spreading. Oliver Ruhnert, Union’s director of football, was forced to respond to a rumour of Barcelona trying to sign Rani Khedira in January on Bild’s programme Lage der Liga. “We would be entering a whole new category if we are already able to transfer players to FC Barcelona,” he smiled.
It’s all about sensible management and planning, of course, but there’s still magic. “It’s madness,” gasped the normally poised Fischer at the end. Sometimes, even the protagonists are swept up in the moment.
• Another week, same Borussia Dortmund. They were second best for much of the late game on Saturday at Eintracht Frankfurt, were wobbling badly at 1-1 – and could easily have gone down to 10 men and conceded a penalty at that point had Sascha Stegemann, the referee, whistled for Karim Adeyemi’s push on Jesper Lindstrøm as he was about to shoot from close range – but were again saved by their dynamic duo. Jude Bellingham netted a wonderfully crafted winner early in the second half, the rest of which was mainly occupied by Gregor Kobel keeping the home side at bay. “We can rely on him 100%, but we would be happier if he had less to do,” Edin Terzic said about his goalkeeper with some degree of understatement.
• We are still getting a handle on just how good (or not) Leipzig are, but we are at least clear on one thing. They always win at home under Marco Rose, and they racked up a seventh straight victory at Red Bull Arena under their newish coach against Leverkusen. Rose’s opposite number, Xabi Alonso, clearly has his hands full after another wan display. Leverkusen were not happy with the free-kick given against Piero Hincapié that led to Christopher Nkunku’s opener (“I still have serious doubts about [it],” said Alonso, “but this isn’t the time to cry about it”) but they didn’t create enough to threaten the hosts. “It is what it is,” admitted the Leverkusen midfielder Robert Andrich. “We are in a relegation battle.”
• Our latest Anglo-German star is upon us – the younger Nmecha brother, Felix, made his first big impression on the Bundesliga stage with a double in Wolfsburg’s 4-0 win over Bochum, a game in which his elder brother Lukas (already a Germany international, of course) also started. The pair were born in Hamburg and brought up in Wythenshawe, playing in Manchester City’s academy, before leaving for Lower Saxony. “He has improved physically,” enthused Niko Kovac, who credits settling Felix into a midfield position – after trying him in a number of different spots – for his good form.
• Stuttgart go from strength to strength under Michael Wimmer, given the caretaker-coach role after Pellegrino Matarazzo’s dismissal until the winter break at least. He got his third win in four games thanks to a late, late victory over Augsburg – provoking memories of last season’s final day great escape with Waldemar Anton’s winner (at the end of a sensational move the right-back started and finished) in front of the Cannstatter Kurve.
• Werder Bremen ended a run of two straight defeats thanks to a more familiar goalscorer, with Niclas Füllkrug’s beast of a header five minutes from the end finishing off Hertha in a dour game and keeping him joint top of the Bundesliga goalscoring charts.
• Hats off, too, to Köln, who were forced to play with little rest after Thursday’s Europa Conference League game at Slovacko was fogged off and the rest of it had to be played on Friday. After their attempts to postpone were rebuffed they held Hoffenheim to a 1-1 draw, which left Steffen Baumgart more than satisfied – his team ran over 122km in the match. “They fought against all odds,” Baumgart said.