The last-minute goal scored by Danilho Doekhi against Borussia Mönchengladbach at the weekend gave the Irons their eighth win of the season in the Bundesliga. That is already a new Hinrunde record for the club. The goal to make it 2-1 in the seventh minute of added time raised the roof at the An der Alten Försterei stadium. No wonder that the team from Köpenick, who have once again surpassed themselves, were able to create chance after chance in a high-intensity second half. "It was a brilliant afternoon," said midfielder Rani Khedira. "At the end of the day, Gladbach had nothing to counter our mentality." It was "brutal determination" said the 28-year-old. And coach Urs Fischer saw his team produce "a fantastic second-half" and he was clearly touched after the exciting match. "Crazy – really," said the Swiss coach in view of the passionate display from his team and holding on to top spot. Union Berlin have now led the table for seven matchdays.
The team under head coach Urs Fischer demonstrated their ability to succeed without shining on the pitch – equipped with the necessary confidence – in the Europa League on Thursday night. Against the confirmed winners of the group Royale Union Saint-Gilloise from Belgium, Union had to win to qualify for the knockout round play-offs in second place. They overcame the pressure to secure a 1-0 victory. The Berliners took an early lead through Sven Michel (6'). The spectators did not witness a feast of football. "It was a bad game but we won 1-0 in the end and are now in the Europa League in the New Year even after our start to the group stage," said a relieved Rani Khedira after the final whistle. The Irons qualified by the skin of their teeth in Group D. The first two matches both ended in 1-0 defeats but then they went on to win 1-0 four times in succession. Urs Fischer found that remarkable: "Madness! 12 points picked up with four goals," said the coach about his team after the game. Union are still in the DFB Cup and they are at home to VfL Wolfsburg in the Round of 16 at the end of January 2023.
Urs Fischer almost has a full squad to choose from for the game at the BayArena. There is a question mark over the goalkeeper Frederik Rönnow who suffered a thigh injury in the Europa League match last Thursday when he was replaced by Lennart Grill in the second half. It could well be that the 23-year-old keeper, on loan to the Irons from Bayer 04 since the summer, will be between the sticks in Leverkusen on Sunday. Fischer may well look to rotate after the win in Belgium to give one or two regular starters a break. That means Timo Baumgartl could again start in a back three. The Portuguese Diogo Leite on the left and Robin Knoche in the middle have played there recently. Paul Jaeckel, Danilho Doekhi or Baumgartl could play on the right. Captain and stalwart Christopher Trimmel, the Norwegian Julian Ryerson, the Pole Tymoteusz Puchacz and Niko Gießelmann play on the wings ahead of them.
Rani Khedira, the brother of World Cup winner Sami Khedira, plus Janik Haberer, a new signing from SC Freiburg, and the Hungarian András Schäfer usually play in midfield. The Japanese Genki Haraguchi started in place of Schäfer in Belgium. Sheraldo Becker and Jordan Siebatcheu almost always start up front. However, it could be that one of the previous substitutes Kevin Behrens, Jamie Leweling or Sven Michel, scorer of the winner at Saint-Gilloise, could be in the starting line-up in Leverkusen.
Union have the best defence in the league with only nine goals conceded. The team from Köpenick are also in the top four attacks with 21 goals so far. The Werkself will have to be aware of aerial attacks: The Irons scored headed goals number six and seven in the 2-1 win against Borussia Mönchengladbach – the best return in the league. It is no wonder that Union have provided the second highest number of crosses of all Bundesliga teams in open play (168). Another strength of the team from the capital: The players who come off the bench can win matches. Not just the goals from subs – the second highest number after Borussia Dortmund – suggest a well-balanced squad. Urs Fischer brought on fresh legs on the hour mark when 1-0 down in the shape of Genki Haraguchi, Sven Michel and Christopher Trimmel. "That brought more tempo," said the coach who then went on to bring on strikers Jamie Leweling and Kevin Behrens. The latter scored the equaliser, Leweling provided the cross for the winner at 2-1. Union’s resilience is also impressive. Two rightly disallowed goals against Borussia Mönchengladbach did not throw them off course. The team continued to believe in themselves right to the end. And confidence is growing with each additional victory.
The penetration of the forward duo of Sheraldo Becker and Jordan Siebatcheu has recently diminished after a strong start to the season. Neither of the two strikers has found the back of the net since the 2-0 win against VfL Wolfsburg on matchday seven. "You get phases like that," said a sympathetic Urs Fischer, "the crucial thing is to stick at it." The front two have so far provided nine goals and six assists.
Was it due to rigorous understatement or simple realistic self-assessment? Given that Union Berlin are top of the table, the targets set out ahead of the season by the management and players are definitely already well out of date. "The main aim is to have three teams below us," said Oliver Ruhnert, head of professional football at Union Berlin. "With the Bundesliga, we are definitely looking to stay up again," declared skipper Christopher Trimmel. And now, after two months at the top and the fans singing 'Only FCU will be German champions', the Berlin team still have their feet firmly on the ground. Coach Urs Fischer set an initial target of 40 points. "The team are still clearly focused although they are in top spot at the moment. They know how to assess it really well." The fact is Union have again and again compensated for the departure of key players like Robert Andrich (Bayer 04), Max Kruse (VfL Wolfsburg) and recently Tiwo Awoniyi (Nottingham Forest) for years. Eleventh, seventh, fifth: The Irons have improved in every season. And they are capable of achieving anything this time in their fourth season in the Bundesliga.
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