Regardless of how the season ends for Union Berlin: It has already been a success. Hardly anybody could have believed it possible that the club from the capital would be in with a chance of qualifying for Europe in the supposedly difficult second season in the Bundesliga. The Irons are level on points with Borussia Mönchengladbach in seventh place – a finish that would put them in the newly created UEFA Conference League. An away win at the BayArena on Saturday would put them in the running for the Europa League. After an outstanding first half of the season, it looked like the campaign was no longer running smoothly when Union lost 3-0 at VfL Wolfsburg. Coach Urs Fischer remains calm. “Games like that happen and you have to accept it,” he said. Eighth or ninth place at the end of the season would certainly be more than acceptable in Köpenick.
While Fischer has all his defensive and midfield players on board at the moment, he has injury concerns in attack. Centre-forward Anthony Ujah has missed the whole of the season with a complicated knee injury, and regular first choice Sheraldo Becker was hit hard in January; the Dutchman had to undergo an ankle operation. Leon Dajaku, on loan from Bayern Munich since the winter break, is also injured – as is Cedric Teuchert, the scorer of the goal in the 1-0 win against the Werkself in the first half for the season. It remains to be seen if any of the last three named will play again this term. The regular striker Taiwo Awoniyi could return to the squad against the Werkself after a long injury lay-off. The loanee from Liverpool suffered a muscle injury in February but returned to full training this week. In addition, the difference maker Max Kruse could be back in the starting eleven. The 33-year-old, the top scorer for the Irons with ten goals this season, was only an option from the bench against Wolfsburg due to a knock.
Even if all the above-named players are sidelined, Union still pose a threat on goal – expressed in another word: Danger. Joel Pohjanpalo, currently on loan from Bayer 04, is fit and has impressively demonstrated his qualities as a striker recently. The Finn netted a hat-trick in seventeen minutes in the 3-1 win against Werder Bremen two weeks ago. Werkself supporters may well remember his hat-trick against Hamburg SV in 2016. Pohjanpalo is only the fourth player to score hat-tricks for two clubs in the Bundesliga.
Urs Fischer’s words of wisdom before games appear to be working particularly well this season. Union are the best team out of the blocks this term. The Irons have scored the equal highest number of goals in the opening 15 minutes (eleven – along with Mönchengladbach) and also conceded the least (three – in common with Leipzig). That obviously makes the job easier for the team as the solid defence has proven to be difficult to breach. Union have the fifth best defence in the Bundesliga with central defender Marvin Friedrich, captain Christopher Trimmel and keeper Andreas Luthe making few mistakes and the back line is very well organised.
Union have often found it difficult to spring surprises up front in the absence of Kruse. The Berliners still pose a threat down the flanks with dangerous crosses from Trimmel and the heading ability of Friedrich and Pohjanpalo but midfield moves often lack ideas and accurate passes. A pass completion rate of 76 per cent puts Union in the bottom third in the Bundesliga. Coach Fischer had reason to complain after the full time at Wolfsburg: “We gave the ball away too much and it felt very hectic.” It could well be different with Kruse back in the side..
If Union win at the BayArena on Saturday then the Europa League would be in reach on the final matchday. Otherwise, there will be a race for the Conference League with Borussia Mönchengladbach and possibly SC Freiburg. A possible problem for the Irons: RB Leipzig will provide a tough challenge in the last game of the campaign and the remaining fixtures for Gladbach against Stuttgart and Bremen look easier on paper. But: Union have shown what they can do against teams from the top third of the table this term – that includes two draws for the Berliners against FC Bayern. And even if they fail to qualify for Europe: Nobody at the Alte Försterei is likely to be unhappy with the overall performance this season.
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