Union Berlin left it late but they created history by qualifying for the Champions League for the first time and remaining unbeaten at home all season. A late goal from Rani Khedira turned Union’s dreams into reality against a resolute Werder Bremen.
Games didn’t come any bigger than this for the likes of Union Berlin.
16 years ago, Union were still playing reserve teams, floundering in the obscurity of regional German football.
But times have changed.
Two years ago, die Eisernen thought they had reached their peak by reaching the European Conference league. A year later, Köpenickers were in dream land as Union went one better and qualified for the Europa League on the final day of the season.
After a dominant victory over league rivals Freiburg two weeks ago, Union lost away to Hoffenheim and needed to match or better Freiburg’s result today to complete a remarkable unbeaten season at home in South-East Berlin.
Having not experienced defeat in Köpenick since February 2022, only newly promoted Werder Bremen stood in Union’s way. But with Bundesliga’s top-scorer, Niclas Füllkrug up-front, this was no small hurdle to overcome.
Story of the match
After a rare tepid defensive display in last week’s defeat, Urs Fischer made two changes to the starting line-up. In came Aïssa Ladouni and Robin Knoche as Paul Jaeckel and Morton Thorsby missed out, with Fischer retaining his preferred 3-5-2 formation.
With Bundesliga status secured for another season after a late equaliser against 1. FC Köln last weekend, Ole Werner rang the changes for Werder.
In came Englishman and former Derby defender, Lee Buchanan for only his second start this season, alongside Romano Schmid, and Niklas Schmidt in a 4-4-2 formation as Anthony Jung was benched, Jens Stage suspended and Mitchell Weiser injured.
Most importantly for the visitors, Füllkrug shook off any injury concerns to start only his second game since early April and would could prove to be his final game for Werder after a prolific few seasons, culminating in Bundesliga’s golden boot.
Amidst a cacophony of noise and colour from both sets of fans, the game started at a ferocious pace – not that Werder fans saw the opening exchanges, shielded by a wall of smoke and flares.
In the second minute, captain, Christopher Trimmel crossed into Kevin Behrens at the back post. Unmarked and six yards out, Behrens mistimed his header and sent the ball well wide.
In the eighth minute, Trimmel created a chance of his own but, like Behrens, could not put Jerome Rousillon’s inch-perfect cross on target.
Fewer than sixty seconds late, Union thought they had a penalty as Janik Haberer went down in the box but VAR overturned the decision to the despair and whistles of the home support.
The game then settled into a more predictable rhythm with Union dominating possession and Werder inauspiciously breaking up attacks of any potential as Union pressed for the opening goal.
In the 37th minute, Behrens went close again as a corner was deflected into his path two yards out but could only glance a reactive header inches wide at the back post.
A few minutes later, another Union corner was met by Danilho Doekhi but his header sailed far over the bar from ten yards.
Werder’s first chance of the game finally came a minute before half-time.
Milos Veljkovic picked up a stray pass in the box, but with his back to goal, he was unable to generate any meaningful power as his effort on the turn trickled into the palms of Frederick Rönnow.
As news of Freiburg’s opening goal away to Eintracht Frankfurt trickled through the stands in added time of the first half, Union continued to threaten a goal of their own with a tenth and eleventh corner but Werder’s defence held-strong to keep the score goalless at half-time.
Welcomed back by the boisterous Waldseite, Union started the second half much like the first.
In the 50th minute, a fierce drive from Rousillon on the edge of the box forced Jiri Pavlenka into a full-stretched save as the Werder goalkeeper tipped the ball around the post for a corner.
Buoyed on by the rhythm of the terraces, Union continued to threaten and thought they were ahead four minutes later.
Returning from an offside position, Sheraldo Becker picked up the ball 25 yards out. Taking one touch to turn and another to set the ball out of his feet, Union’s top-scorer curled a sumptuous shot beyond Pavlenka and into the top corner.
On the hour mark, Unioners had their head in their hands once more as a tantalising Trimmel free-kick from the left sideline evaded everyone and scraped the far post on the way out for a goal-kick.
In the 67th minute, it was a goal-line clearance rather than the post that denied Union the lead.
Union’s 14th corner of the game was met by Doekhi. Ten yards out, He powered his header past a sprawling Pavlenka but marvin Ducksch was alert to the danger and dropped back to his goal-line to head the effort wide.
It was all one-way traffic.
In the 73rd, Becker fired wide from a tight angle after breaking the offside trap. Two minutes later, Leite was centre-metres from connecting to a Rousillon free-kick in the six yard box. And in the 77th minute, substitute, Sven Michel dispossessed a loose Werder pass before firing wide from the edge of the box.
In a defining minute of Bundesliga, Werder’s resistance finally ended as goals rained in across the league.
In the 81st minute, Rani Khedira scored for Union as he calmly passed the ball past Pavlenka into the bottom right corner from the edge of the box.
Tension had built up in the stadium as Champions League hopes seemed to be fading away but in one strike, the roof was lifted. Unioners hugged in elation, barely able to believe what they were seeing.
Whilst Bayern Munich were conceding to Köln, possible ceding the title to Borussia Dortmund, only second later in Frankfurt, Union’s dreams moved closer to reality as Freiburg conceded an equaliser.
There was, however, time for one last heart in mouth moment as Ducksch went close to equalising from a tight angle for Werder but Union held on for a historic achievement.
Finally, the club could breathe.
They were heading to the Champions League.
Player of the match: Jerome Rousillon
Jerome Rousillon hasn’t captured the headlines this season but since joining from Wolfsburg in January he has been a regular for Urs Fischer’s side.
Known locally for his work-rate on the left wing, Rousillon has scored only once since 2019 but contributes more in defensive.
At left-wing back, the Frenchman enables Fischer to implement an attacking 3-5-2 formation in attack and 5-3-2 in defence.
Rousillon provides the width going forward and the discipline in defence.
Today, he was Union’s beating heart, creating chance after chance. He never gave up and can proudly say he led his side to Europe’s elite competition today.