1. FC Union Berlin beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-1 in a superb performance in Nenad Bjelica’s first Bundesliga fixture as head coach. The Alte Försterei rocked as Kevin Volland, Benedict Hollerbach and Mikkel Kaufmann scored the goals that lifted the home side out of the bottom three.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Juranović, Knoche, Leite, Roussillon – Haberer, Khedira – Hollerbach (60. Schäfer), Volland (73. Aaronson), Gosens (83. Jaeckel) – Behrens (73. Kaufmann)
Borussia Mönchengladbach: Nicolas – Scally (70. Friedrich), Elvedi, Wöber – Weigl – Honorat, Reitz (70. Neuhaus), Kramer (59. N’Goumou), Netz (70. Herrmann) – Čvančara (81. Ranos), Pléa
Goals: 1:0 Volland (24., HE), 2:0 Hollerbach (50.), 3:0 Kaufmann (75.), 3:1 Pléa (77.)
For the Unioner packing the stands of the Alte Försterei the day was already significant; ever since the first time the two sides met in the legendary Cup semi-final in February 2001 - when Ronny Nikol wheeled away in front of the Waldseite having buried his winning penalty - they had only good memories of hosting Borussia Mönchengladbach.
But for Nenad Bjelica this Saturday afternoon was pregnant with a greater significance, his home debut at the Alte Försterei as head coach, his Bundesliga debut as head coach.
And the squad he sent out reflected the small changes he had already started to put into place since taking over. Frederik Rönnow, as ever, was in goal behind his favoured back four; Jerome Roussillon on the left, Josip Juranovic on the right, with Robin Knoche and Diogo Leite in between.
Rani Khedira returned from his three-match suspension in midfield alongside Janik Haberer, while Robin Gosens was given freedom to run on the right, behind Kevin Volland and Kevin Behrens leading the line, and, in only his second ever Bundesliga start, Benedict Hollerbach on the right.
Union start strongly, Volland opens the scoring
The call and response of Eisern, Union, roared around the stadium from kick off, and the Union players straight away took the lead of their fans – it was loud, vividly so, and determined - passing the ball around the back before unleashing the first of many lightning breaks through the constantly threatening Gosens on the left. He found Volland who finished across goal, the ball going in off the back post with the confidence of a man who’d scored that vital goal a fortnight ago against Augsburg. The linesman’s flag had gone up immediately, he was offside, but, still... Gladbach had barely had a touch.
It was merely a sign of things to come. Union were superb.
Haberer was dropping into midfield with Khedira as Union were almost playing a 4-2-4 in those opening passages, looking to put Gladbach under pressure, moving the ball about at pace.
Juranovic was everywhere, drifting inside to receive the ball from Rönnow, beating Luca Netz and Max Wöber down the right-hand side, leaving them for dead, before combining with Hollerbach. Behrens, looking every inch the proper number nine, bringing his team-mates into play - dropping deep, winning headers - clipped a ball towards Volland at the back post, he was screaming for it, his hand in the air. Hollerbach then skipped beautifully past Netz, but his dangerous ball somehow evaded all other touches in the box.
Union were dominant, and the guests’ first shot on goal didn’t come until almost 20 minutes had been played when Alassane Plea dragged wide of Rönnow’s right hand post. But immediately Union went up the other end, again through Hollerbach, cutting inside this time where it took a good tackle from Joe Scally to stop Behrens from sweeping home.
Behrens then lobbed Gladbach keeper, Moritz Nicolas, as he rushed out, the bouncing ball coming from Gosens’ clever header through Gladbach’s stuttering lines, and dropping over the bar, landing mockingly on the net as Gosens held his head in his hands. He couldn’t believe it hadn’t gone in. Few others in the stadium could either.
The game was going only one way, and when Volland headed back across goal it was with a certain inevitability that the ball struck Netz’s hand. Volland stepped up, himself, scoring his second goal in two league games, hitting the penalty superbly to Nicolas’s right, right inside the post. It was unstoppable.
Volland was showing the form that led Union to bring him to Berlin from Monaco. He would have to wear a red bandage over his head for the rest of the half following a clash, but patched up, he played on.
Things suddenly grew frantic as Gladbach tried to rouse themselves. Haberer and Gosens cleared from inside the box, Behrens, too, headed out under pressure, and Hollerbach was poleaxed as he tried to break up the other end. If that wasn’t a free kick, Julian Weigl’s lunge on a flying Roussillon after half an hour certainly was, and he was lucky to get away with a yellow card.
Union played on, the wind in their sails, and Bjelica could be very happy with their performance so far. He didn’t sit down for a moment, he just paced his technical area, all in black, up and down, up and down he went. Gosens and Volland again combined – the former’s touch from Haberer’s long ball over the top with five minutes of the half to play, a gorgeous case in point.
Roussillon, meanwhile, was superb, a man possessed, relishing his return to regular play. And it was he who almost crowned the half with a glorious left footed volley that Nicolas did superbly to tip wide with a minute to play.
Though their advantage was still slender, Union had given plenty of cause for hope in the second half. Gladbach had hardly had a sniff.
Hollerbach drives home; Kaufmann makes an immdiate impact
If Union had started the first half quickly, they did the same again in the second. Volland drew another excellent stop, with his feet this time, from the former Unioner, Nicolas. Union surged forward towards the Waldseite. Leite couldn’t direct a header quite on goal, Hollerbach turned Rocco Reitz inside out. Gosens hit another wicked cross across the box, more fruit from his burgeoning partnership with Volland, and the coach was quick to come straight to him on the touchline afterwards, applauding, cheering him on.
Union’s second was coming and Bjelica knew it. The ball dropped to Hollerbach outside the box, having already repaid the new boss for his start with a superb, tricky performance. He let it drop before hitting it on the half volley with his left foot, low and through the crowd. He beat Nicolas all ends up to his right hand side. It was his first goal for Union, and it was utterly glorious.
Hollerbach was having the time of his life, the way he dropped his shoulder to beat Reitz with half an hour to go the surest of signs. He was replaced by Andras Schäfer with half an hour to play, the cheers of the Unioner ringing in his ears.
Union were on fire, switching the ball at will, tormenting their opponents, bewildering them, leaving them punch drunk. Roussillon found Juranovic with a clever ball that drifted across the centre circle, he drove on, finding Gosens on the other side. Behrens did all he could but score, his header being cleaned up by Nicolas at his near post. Later he skipped past Nico Elvedi, Nicolas saving at his feet as he bore down on him.
Schäfer sprung immediately into action in that golden zone he likes so much between the centre circle and the D of the box. But when Union didn’t have the ball, they dug in. Volland robbed Nathan N’Goumou from the left back position; Roussillon tackled Netz shortly before, but in the same position. It was a piece of studied, calm aggression. And when Juranovic lost the ball near the halfway line, Khedira was there to mop up, his own return was more than convincing.
Bjelica brought on Brenden Aaronson and Mikkel Kaufmann with a quarter of an hour to play, and what an impact it made. After only a couple of minutes the Danish striker finished superbly, latching onto Elvedi’s misplaced clearance coolly, before cutting inside of Florian Neuhaus in front of a Waldseite already singing Winter Wonderland, to make it 3-0.
Though Gladbach would score almost immediately after through Alassane Plea, the Unioner barely noticed a thing. The smoke from the away end drifted across the darkening skies, adding an unreal quality to the chilly evening, to the joy erupting in the stands. They had waited so long for this; they wouldn’t let it be spoiled.
Rönnow helped, the calmest man in the house, claiming a deep cross well ahead of Grant-Leon Ranos, as did Knoche, a rock all afternoon alongside Leite, heading clear, stepping up, commanding his box. He played a perfect ball out to a marauding Juranovic who covered 30 yards, but blazed over, an exuberant finish, if not a clinical one.
Bjelica said that it was a performance deserved after all the work his side had put in since his arrival. "We prepared intensively for the game,” he said. “I'm obviously delighted with the result - but also with the way my team performed today and what they showed on the pitch.”
At the final whistle, the Unioner cheered as if they’d won the league. Hurrah, Hurrah, Union ist wieder da. They’re back, they said. It had been a long time since they’d done so in the flush of victory, and they were determined to enjoy every second of it.