Union Berlin have secured a second successive Bundesliga campaign after defying the odds in 2019/20. And how did they do it? With the help of deadly set pieces, a fearless Swede, a dash of experience, and by running from Berlin to Moscow, and back.
The 2-1 Matchday 31 win at Cologne had brought the dream of staying up to within touching distance. "No game is easy," said Union forward Marcus Ingvartsen ahead of Tuesday's meeting with bottom side Paderborn. "But we simply have to bring things to an end."
They did just that. Ben Zolinski's first-half own goal might not have been the sexiest of finishes to their survival fight, and an empty An der Alten Försterei stadium was also not part of the dream scenario. But the T-shirts the Union players wore as they celebrated said it all: 'Schluss endlich'. Done it, finally.
The sense of a long, hard-fought battle won was no surprise. What will have raised eyebrows is the fact they have won it at all, never mind with two games to spare.
Watch: Marcus Ingvartsen on Union's successful survival bid
Promoted via a play-off triumph against Stuttgart last summer, Union were expected to enjoy their first-ever Bundesliga season and then depart as plucky, relegated losers, having provided a dash of colour and novelty value.
"We've done it, and we're simply delighted," said Union captain Christopher Trimmel after securing Bundesliga football for 2020/21. "We knew that for most people we were number one relegation candidates, but we've done really well all season long and surprised a lot of people. I'm proud of the whole squad."
Pride was a rare commodity on Matchday 1 as a 4-0 home defeat to RB Leipzig spectacularly pooped the Union party. But it also served as the wake-up call Urs Fischer's men required, highlighting the step up in class that had to be made.
It was made, and quickly, with a historic maiden Bundesliga win coming on Matchday 3, as Borussia Dortmund felt the full force of Union's strength in the capital. Freiburg, neighbours Hertha Berlin and Borussia Mönchengladbach would suffer the same fate as BVB during the course of the season.
Fully appreciative of the part played by their '12th man', the Union squad were desperately disappointed not to share their survival party with some 22,000 invitees on home turf against Paderborn. But their absence only made the team's heart grow stronger.
"We unfortunately couldn't offer people a full season," said veteran Christian Gentner, who could now stay at the club beyond the expiry of his current contract later this month. "Because of that we absolutely wanted to stay in the league, and next season play in front of a full house again."
Mission accomplished, and while the squad are grateful to the fans, Gentner is one of those who will receive most of the plaudits from the Union faithful.
A 2008/09 Bundesliga title winner with Wolfsburg, he has made 30 league appearances this season, ranking in the Union squad's top five for minutes played. Though now 34, Gentner's energy and experience were crucial in a squad that contained few who'd had more than a nibble in terms of a taste of the big time. Double Bundesliga title winner Neven Subotic was another, though a lack of top-flight experience certainly did not hinder Trimmel.
The Austrian full-back had played in a top division before, but the last time before 2019/20 was while he was still at Rapid Vienna. In 2014.
With eight assists, Trimmel has only Dortmund's Achraf Hakimi ahead of him as a defender laying on goals for his team this season. "I will work hard to confirm that next season," said the late-blooming Austrian, who will be 34 next February.
'That's how we win'
Trimmel's laser-guided dead ball delivery was a key factor in Union killing off teams while keeping their survival chances alive. Half of their 38 league goals have come from dead balls — a Bundesliga high — though the 2,352 miles the squad have covered and the 1,010 aerial duels won — both league bests — have also been crucial ingredients. "That's how we win games," admitted Trimmel.
Inexhaustible industry — the squad's collective distance run equals a jog from Berlin to Moscow, and back — aerial presence and undying determination can be summed up in the season of one man: Sebastian Andersson.
Watch: Union beat Borussia Dortmund to score Bundesliga win #1
The Sweden international's only previous top-flight experience had come in the more welcoming confines of his native country. Not that you would have thought so as the ex-Djurgardens, Norrköping and Kaiserslautern striker struck three times in the opening four league games.
He has scored 12 times so far, a tally bettered by only six Bundesliga players, and Andersson is about so much more than putting the ball in the back of the net. While his goals total is impressive, there are other stats he has racked up that are simply breathtaking.
'Sebastian is a beast'
He leads the league in duels won — and by far — with 489, and a massive 258 of those have been in the air. The second-best tally in that category is the 150 headers Leverkusen defender Sven Bender has won.
"The quality he brings does the team good," said Fischer. "Sebastian is ready to go a long way for the team." "Sebastian is a beast, his heading ability is incredible," said teammate Grischa Prömel. "When he's going to flick the ball on — as a winger — you can make a run because you know the ball is coming."
Andersson will be hoping to improve his total in the final two games at Hoffenheim and then at home to Fortuna Düsseldorf. Those matches will come without the pressure of needing the points to stay up, but also without the fans who have done so much to give the fairytale a happy ending.
"Of course we're super happy, but it was a bit of a strange feeling. Everyone didn't really know what the right thing to do was as you don't have that feeling of happiness from the outside," said Robert Andrich. "This is also for the fans. We'll make up the celebrations to them later."
Trimmel, though, does still have some party plans. "We'll celebrate with social distancing… and a few beers."
Source : https://www.bundesliga.com/en/bundesliga/news/union-berlin-the-german-capital-s-miracle-survivors-set-for-second-season-116241524