People have slowly got used to a situation that almost nobody predicted at the start of the season. FC Union Berlin have settled into the top third of the table – and they are there by right. Union are not just along for the ride with the big teams and they have competed with them on equal terms. The team from the capital earned a draw against FC Bayern, beat Borussia Dortmund 2-1 at home and most recently shared the points with Wolfsburg. The team from Köpenick have yet to lose to a side in the top third of the table this term. And there have only been two defeats so far this season – that is as few as Bayern, Leipzig and the Werkself have clocked up. Last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Wolfsburg was the fifth game on the bounce without defeat for Union – although the opponents in that run included Bayern, Dortmund and Stuttgart. The team under head coach Urs Fischer are in fifth place on 25 points and four behind the Werkself. The only setback came in the DFB Cup: Union suffered a 3-2 defeat against second division SC Paderborn just before Christmas as they took an early exit from the domestic cup competition that saw them reach the quarter-finals last term. That was as far as they progressed – the Werkself knocked them out.
A large number of outsiders have associated one name with the meteoric rise of the Berliners: Max Kruse. The fact the successful run at the Alte Försterei stadium has continued without the new signing has taught these observers a lesson. Despite that, Union are obviously keen to see the return of the former Germany international who has been sidelined by a muscle injury for over a month. Kruse is not available for the game against the Werkself. “He’s got a way to go yet,” said coach Fischer after the game against Wolfsburg. Two other strikers are ruled out for Friday. Anthony Ujah has not featured this season after his knee operation – and it is highly likely there will be no reunion with Joel Pohjanpalo. ‘Danger’ is currently on loan at the club from the capital where he started well with two goals in his first four games but he has been struggling with an ankle injury since the middle of November. The Finnish goal-getter is now back on the training ground and, according to Fischer, is “slowly getting going again and his training is gradually being increased. I hope we can maintain that.”
Two other recently injured players do return to the squad to face Bayer 04. Both central defender Nico Schlotterbeck and experienced midfielder Christian Gentner have completed full training this week with their teammates. “It’s looking good for them,” said a hopeful Fischer.
It was common knowledge last season that Union Berlin are incredibly dangerous from set pieces. Nothing has changed in that respect. When there is a dead ball situation close to the opposition penalty area then it is often really difficult to defend against Union. The team from Köpenick have scored twelve goals from set plays this season – only the Werkself have netted one more across the league. The captain Christopher Trimmel is undoubtedly one of the best corner and free kick specialists in the whole of the Bundesliga – and, even with the transfer of striker Sebastian Andersson to FC Köln, he still has first class targets. Leading the way is central defender Marvin Friedrich, brother of Melissa Friedrich who plays for the Bayer 04 Women’s team. With his height of 1.92 metres, Friedrich is almost unbeatable in aerial duels and he has already scored four goals with his head this season, making him the most prolific defender in the Bundesliga. And his fellow defender Robin Knoche plus midfielder Grischa Prömel and the powerful forward Taiwo Awoniyi always represent a threat to any defence from corners and free kicks.
The goal threat and successful run has continued in Kruse’s absence but the attacker is definitely missed and he is very hard to replace. The brilliant moments that the left-footer again and again brings to his team, the surprises, the out of the ordinary – all those things have diminished. Union have made the fourth-lowest number of passes and have the second lowest pass completion rate – only Mainz 05 are worse. Without Kruse, there is a lot less passing football and it has been replaced by fast and direct counter attacking. But: That also seems to be working out really well.
The management in Berlin-Köpenick never tire of emphasising that the main target is to establish a cushion to the relegation spots. Now with a 14-point lead – but above all due to the consistently impressive performances – even the biggest pessimists can no longer assume the big target of staying up in the Bundesliga in the second season cannot be achieved. If Union continue to be so consistent, and with the possible timely return of Kruse and Pohjanpalo, then the target could well be adjusted upwards.
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