1. FC Union Berlin came away with a blessed, deserved and hugely important point on Saturday afternoon having drawn 1-1 with FC Augsburg at the Alte Försterei. Following Ermedin Demirov’s opener, and Robin Knoche’s saved second half penalty, Kevin Volland equalised in the 88th minute to send the stadium into raptures.
1. FC Union Berlin: Rönnow – Trimmel (75. Juranović), Jaeckel, Knoche, Leite (86. Hollerbach), Gosens (75. Roussillon) – Laïdouni, Haberer (67. Schäfer) – Volland – Fofana (75. Kaufmann), Behrens
FC Augsburg: Dahmen – Gumny (23. Mbabu), Gouweleeuw, Udokhai, Pedersen – Rexhbecaj, Dorsch – Demirovic (78. Michel), Engels (65. Vargas), Iago (78. Bauer) – Tietz (78. Breithaupt)
Goals: 0-1 Demirovic (39. pen), 1-1 Volland (88.)
Marco Grote had been understandably cagey during his press conference on Thursday when the assembled journalists tried to draw him on his playing style and on the team he would send out onto the pitch for his first game in charge of 1. FC Union Berlin.
But then what did they expect? It’s not as if his predecessor would light the small room in the belly of the Alte Försterei up with titbits ahead of games, let alone ones as important as this.
But in the end, he had tipped his hat already when he talked of the little time he’d had to work with a squad only returning in dribs and drabs from international duty. As such it was with no surprise he sent Frederik Rönnow out in goal behind a back three of Diogo Leite, Robin Gosens and Paul Jaeckel. The injuries to Leonardo Bonucci and Danilho Doekhi only added to the sense of certainty, though they did leave a space on the bench for the hugely talented 17-year-old centre-back Oluwaseon Ogbemudia for the first time in the Bundesliga.
That he was joined there by Andras Schäfer, after a hellish year of hard work, was the icing on the cake.
They were flanked by the skipper, Christopher Trimmel, on the right, and the new father, Robin Gosens, on the left.
In midfield he had, however, done away with a more traditional holder, playing Janik Haberer and Aissa Laidouni, a trident tipped by Kevin Volland, who was to dovetail with Kevin Behrens and David Datro Fofana up top.
A disputed penalty gives the guests the lead
It started frenetically. Robert Gumny getting down the Augsburg left and winning a corner before the always busy, ever-present Laidouni got his first reassuring touch, a deft flick and move. Behrens brought the ball down, he looked out to the left, but Gosens was still making up the space, so he cut inside, and it took Gumny to bring him down. Volland flicked the free kick into the box with his left – a sign already of the slightest of changes under the new trainer team - bending across the box where Knoche hit his header well, but straight at Finn Dahmen in the guests’ goal.
Gumny’s long throws from the left were a menace, as were Iago’s bustling runs, but Union dealt with them well enough, trusting themselves to play their way out of trouble - as Fofana did, with a jink, and Trimmel, with a bang - inside the first five minutes. Rönnow saved their first effort on goal, a stabbed shot from Ermedin Demirovic, with ease.
Behrens drew a finer stop from Dahmen a moment later at the other end, forcing the keeper to jab out his right foot from short range. It was the first of many fine, relexive stops he wouldd make throughout the afternoon.
Gumny then caught Fofana as he rolled his foot over the ball with gorgeous ease, like he was smoothing down the creases on a silk sheet. Gosens could only flick his header out for a goal kick with his back to goal and the ball dropping behind him.
Though they were looking to move the ball at pace around them, pinging passes back and forth, Union still needed to be mindful of an Augsburg side full of confidence since their own managerial change earlier in the season. After 12 minutes Elvis Rexhbecaj won a free kick, his chipped ball clipping the outstretched hand of Leite, 25 yards out. But it came to nothing as Mads Pedersen hit his free kick over the bar.
Phillip Tietz flashed a first time shot wide after Arne Engels had set him up quickly, darting into the box from the inside left channel.
Jaeckel slid into a tackle on Pedersen that was superb in its timing and execution. He has grown into his position at the right of the three, and again here he was solid in the tackle and progressive with the ball.
Union would open Augsburg up after 25 minutes, a lovely, instinctive ball from Haberer setting Fofana away, and it took a superb tackle to stop him as he tried to bring the ball onto his left foot to shoot. The resulting corner was whipped in by Gosens, and met by a rising Behrens, but he could only flick his header wide of the back post.
Rönnow had to come out of his box to stop Demirovic as he came through the middle, sliding at his feet to clear the ball with the Waldseite’s hearts in their mouths; Knoche wellied the rebound away into the ether over Köpenick, leaving little room for doubt.
He would then clear Engels’ downward header with ten minutes of the half to play. Augsburg had seized the momentum. They switched the ball out right through Pedersen where Engels picked it up on the very edge of the box. Gosens launched himself, taking as much of the man as he did the ball, and the referee, Florian Badstübner, initially pointed to the spot, but then, surrounded by both sets of irate players, decided to go to the video assistant.
Gosens remained sure that he'd won the ball, but eventually, Badstübner pointed again to the spot from where Demirovic defied Rönnow’s best Bruce Grobbelaar jelly-kneed impression to put it to the keeper's left.
It was 1-0 for the guests, and it stung Union.
They needed to compose themselves as the half wound down. Tietz put a header wide after substitute Kevin Mbabu’s ball in from the right, but Union came back with one of their best moves of the half, Trimmel finding Fofana who took a touch, drawing another fine stop from Dahmen with 45 minutes long since played.
The game grew bad tempered in the freezing temperatures, Haberer got a yellow card for a lunge on Iago in the middle of the frenzied action and counter-action. But there were no more goals, and the players trudged off to ready themselves, biting their tongues, focussing their minds.
Tempers fray as the clock ticks away, and Kevin Volland finally equalises
The second half started with Kevin Volland on his back in the box, almost exactly where Engels had gone down for Augsburg’s penalty, his arms outstretched, certain he too would get a spot-kick. He was having the best game of his short Union career so far, the bit between his teeth, and this wasn’t to be it for the former German international.
But the game was far from the spectacle it had been at the same point in the first half. It was all speed and clamour, hustle and bustle, but there was little finesse from either side at first. Passes went astray, touches were too heavy. Trimmel found Fofana, but he couldn’t turn Pedersen. Demirovic hit a routine ball to Iago out of bounds. Trimmel was floored by Iago, again, inside the box, and tempers flared. Again the referee went to his screen, this time awarding the penalty to Union.
Knoche stood over it, he took a couple of stamps on the bumps around the spot, and four confident steps back, but Dahmen guessed correctly, diving to his right. He palmed the ball away.
Union surged on towards a seething Waldseite after that. Niklas Dorsch went down dramatically, before Dahmen made an impossible save from Fofana, his right hand coming out of nowhere as the Ivorian’s shot was surely goalbound. It had been a glorious move, Behrens finding Volland, who passed first time back across goal.
Within a minute Gosens finally had the ball in the back of the net with a pinpoint header from Haberer’s cross, but he had strayed just offside before the ball was struck, the linesman’s flag a kick to the guts of the Unioner, now wondering if their luck would ever change.
Union fought and fought. Behrens hit a ball inside to Fofana just a tick too far ahead of him, then Schäfer came on for Haberer, the smile on his face a mile wide even as he misjudged his first touch. But he demanded the ball back off Trimmel immediately, desperate to make an impact on the game. He wouldn’t stop as long as he was on the pitch.
Pedersen, constantly on the move, a thorn in Union’s side all game long, blasted a 30 yard drive wide after 70 minutes.
But still Union kept coming. Behrens beat Mbabu, finding Fofana, who pulled the ball back for Schäfer. He would blast another over from outside the box with 15 minutes to play. Fofana, himself, was then crowded out by Elvis Rexhbecaj when trying to ready himself, the ball at his toe.
Grote soon swapped things up, his fullbacks, Trimmel and Gosens, coming off for Jerome Roussillon and Josip Juranovic, as well as Mikkel Kaufmann replacing the tiring Fofana up front.
Augsburg played for time, frustrating their hosts as best they could. Ohis Uduokhai went down easily when Kaufmann had him beat, Pedersen took an age to come off the pitch having gone down in his own box.
Yet still Union had plenty of the ball, with Schäfer constantly dropping deeper and deeper, looking for it the same way a kid does, undertanding only the joy in its movement, the happiness of his return to action. Laidouni was covering miles; Juranovic a whirlwind on the right.
But it was from the left that the Croatian would create Union's breakthrough. He hit a free kick deep into the box that was headed back by Knoche into the path of Volland who finished with his right, first time, to send the stadium into raptures; a booming, roaring, guttural roar of relief and utter, delirious pleasure.
Grote smiled as he looked back on his first day on the bench in the Bundesliga, talking of the "will, energy and passion" his side showed. And their performance only gave cause for optimism, he said. "The team must keep this conviction in the coming days and weeks, because the way we played today will get us out of this situation."
At the final whistle - after five long minutes of time added on, with Union pouring onto their now bedraggled guests, the wind behind them, the Waldseite ahead of them - some of the Union players would drop to their knees, relief and pride and the simple release of an almost unprecedented run of losses being stemmed.
For it may have just been a single point earned. But, from inside the Alte Försterei at that moment, it felt like it was one flaked with gold.