With typical understatement, manager Urs Fischer had talked about the need to avoid relegation before the game. But it took only 50 seconds on Sunday to see that Union Berlin, in their own inimitable style, are much more likely to challenge for Europe again: Kevin Behrens nodded in a cross from Jerome Roussillon, the first of a hat-trick of headed goals, after some good build-up work from the USMNT’s Brenden Aaronson on his Bundesliga debut.
Union’s consistent success since promotion in 2019 has been built on devastatingly simple moves and players like Behrens. The 32-year-old was a typical journeyman forward, banging in the odd goal in provincial fourth-tier (Saarbrucken) and second-tier (Sandhausen) sides before the east Berlin club took a chance on him two years ago. He’s been more of a support act to Sheraldo Becker than the main man up front so far, in truth. But as the Suriname striker was being rested ahead of a potential move, Behrens took his place next to Chelsea loanee David Fofana — who looked very lively throughout — and became the hero of the piece. No one had managed a Bundesliga hat-trick of headers since Markus Schroth of Karlsruher SC in 1997.
Germany’s dearth of centre-forwards had the veteran fend off enquiries about his international ambitions with boilerplate answers afterwards. “I’m only focusing on the league,” he said, and so on. But that won’t be the end of the story if he continues to score.
Markische Online Zeitung helpfully noted that Behrens hails from Bremen, just like fellow late-bloomer Niclas Fullkrug, and added that his hair (“more accurate, parted and gelled”) and teeth (“like Jurgen Klopp’s, shiny white, no gap”) compared favourably with those of the Werder forward. Whether Hansi Flick will be swayed by such superficialities is yet unknown.
At club level, however, new recruit Kevin Volland from Monaco will do well to displace him in the starting XI. Goals aside, Behrens’ humble attitude fits Fischer’s ultra-modest approach like a glove: he was spotted going home on a push bike after the match. “He’s a great guy, also in the dressing room, always ready for a bit of fun,” Fischer said.
The Swiss manager needs great guys to pull off a difficult balancing act as Union embark on a season in the Champions League. The 57-year-old is tasked with managing a gradual transformation that has already heralded the arrival of high-profile recruits such as Fofana, Volland and Robin Gosens (from Inter) and might yet deliver veteran defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus as well.
At the same time, Union must not jettison the strong sense of togetherness that has been the bedrock of their surprise ascent. It’s about delivering change without change, if you will; few things are harder to pull off in football. “Our first aim is still to survive in the league,” Fischer said on Friday. “We won’t budge, we won’t do things differently and we will keep our face.”
It would be remiss not to mention that Mainz were amenable opponents, however. The sorry state of their aerial defence was as bad as that of the Soviet Union in May 1987, when German hobby aviator and self-appointed peace envoy Mathias Rust was allowed to land his Cessna right in the middle of Red Square in Moscow.
To top it all off, French striker Ludovic Ajorque missed not one but two poorly taken penalties, a Bundesliga novelty. Things could have been a lot closer.
But then again, no one can accuse Union of relying on luck in the last few years. They’ve massively exceeded expectations every year since going up. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too shocked if they were to take a first Champions League campaign in their stride as well.
We must also show some Endo-less love to VfB Stuttgart, though. Fresh from losing their talismanic midfielder to Liverpool 48 hours before kick-off, the Swabians destroyed VfL Bochum 5-0 at home to lead the Bundesliga table ahead of (the not-quite-yet) “Harry Kane team” from Munich. Strikers Serhou Guirassy and Silas were particularly impressive for Sebastian Hoeness’s side with two goals each. But here, too, praise needs to be tempered. They’re unlikely to face a worse side than Saturday’s visitors.
Over in Leverkusen, it was a much more even and high-class contest. Bayer 04 eventually beat RB Leipzig 3-2 thanks to a wonderfully crooked goal from Florian Wirtz, whose right-footed shot bounced off his left foot and into the net. Was it a “statement win,” as new arrival Jonas Hofmann opined? In the words of Vicky Pollard: “Yeah but no.” Yes, because there was enough quality on show to believe that both these teams will be in contention for the title — if Bayern were to open the door for them. But also no, because defensive frailties will breed fears that both lack the consistency to go all the way.
It’s still early days, though. Bayer, in particular, remain a fascinating work in progress under Xabi Alonso, and supporters can’t get enough of it. “Such an atmosphere (in the stadium) has rarely been experienced, even during the times of Lucio, (Michael) Ballack, Ze Roberto and (Ulf) Kirsten” wrote Suddeutsche Zeitung with reference to the famous triple runners-up season of 2002. The ground did fall quiet in the second half when a supporter got hurt celebrating. His injuries are reportedly not too serious.
“The only positive thing today is the result,” Edin Terzic said after Borussia Dortmund’s flattering 1-0 win over Koln on Sunday, when a late Donyell Malen goal delivered three points. The home side looked laboured and devoid of creativity without Jude Bellingham in midfield, and Steffen Baumgart’s side were unfortunate not to escape Signal Iduna Park with at least a point. The best moment for the home side came long after the final whistle as Youssoufa Moukoko celebrated the win with Baumgart’s flat cap on his head. Koln’s coach, it turned out, had promised the 18-year-old his trademark headgear in return after getting a shirt from him last season.
Talking of madcap situations, we must pay a quick visit to Augsburg. As if their 4-4 draw with Borussia Monchengladbach wasn’t crazy enough already, an empty supporters’ bus from the away team was also hit by an errant bullet from a police gun after the game. Authorities said the shot had been fired accidentally and that four policemen were lightly injured in the event. But the exact nature of the event remains a mystery, as does Augsburg’s transformation from last season’s dullest side in the league into high-scoring daredevils.
Tune in next week for more, when sharpshooter Kane takes on Augsburg in Munich.
(Photo: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)