For a club that has never played in the modern Bundesliga, indeed never having finished higher than 6th in the Zweiteliga, Union Berlin and its fans aren’t half dealing well with pressure this season. Having seen expectations rise from hopes of improving on last season’s 6th place finish, to faint ambitions of disrupting the triumvirate of Eintracht Braunschweig, Stuttgart and Hannover who seemed to have pulled away in the campaign’s early stages, to breaking into the top 3, both players and supporters have taken each step of progress in stride.
Still though, it was only a few weeks ago that, having only just claimed 3rd place, midfielder Kreilach proclaimed that they would now only be happy with either keeping hold of that 3rd spot, or marching on even further to 2nd. 1st place was not on the table, and at that moment, such was the form of the titans of Stuttgart that that statement seemed not to be lacking in optimism, but to be a bold and ambitious battle cry.
That brings us to Monday night. What a difference a few weeks have made. For while all of Union’s rivals for promotion have faltered in recent matches, Jens Keller’s men have taken on all comers. Stuttgart’s woes in particular have given cause for cheer in the nation’s capital, and against the expectations of many, Union went into Monday’s game at home to Nürnberg with a chance to claim pole position in the race for promotion and the 2.Bundesliga title.
On the night, perhaps it was no surprise that the inflated stakes created an initially cagey affair. With the visitors still finding their feet under caretaker Michael Köllner, and the hosts given little more than 48 hours to process that this match had suddenly become one of the biggest in the club’s history, there was bound to be some early nerves. One of the worst sufferers was Sebastian Polter, who has unsurprisingly hit the ground running in the two months since his permanent return to Berlin. On this night though he fluffed his lines on several occasions in front of goal in the match’s opening hour, and with the occasion threatening to peter out into anti-climax it was tough to see where the game would find a breakthrough.
Union’s season has been defined by a consistency in their team selection, especially compared to their rivals at the top of the table. In contrast to the rotation-obsessed Braunschweig, the faltering Hannover and the embarrassment of riches at Stuttgart, there is no doubt that Jens Keller has a preferred first XI. Do not mistake this for a lack of options though – as whenever the manager has been forced into a change, the replacement has invariably done a superb job. Whether it be Zejnullahu deputising for the suspended Kroos, the rookie goalkeeper Mesenhöler filling in for the injured Busk, or Michael Parensen slotting back into the team with ease in the absence of the stricken Pedersen, there has been no shortage of aces up Keller’s sleeve.
In this case, the ace was forgotten forward Philipp Hosiner. The Austrian had not even been granted 10 competitive minutes over the last 5 league games, and having only scored two league goals as second fiddle to two different strikers, as well as suffering a horrific collapsed lung in the winter, he could certainly be forgiven for thinking this was not his season. If this campaign does turn out to be historic for Union though, he has certainly carved out his place in it now, sweeping home Skrzybski’s cut back to ensure this was not a night to forget for the jubilant home side.
With the target on their back that comes with being the leader of the pack, the real pressure starts now for Union. However with their strength in depth no longer a best kept secret, and what was already possibly the strongest first XI in the division, who would bet against them? While the first half of the season showed a stark contrast between home and away form, the now league leaders have been imperious both at, and away from, the Old Forester since Christmas, and now have some reward. A real test of their away credentials will come in the next game at Hannover, but a win there and their momentum will surely be difficult for anyone to curtail.
If Die Eisern can hold their nerve as they did on Monday between now and the end of the season this season’s vintage of The Iron must forever be known as “The Iron Stomachs”. – Tom Nuttall-Jones.
Hannover ring the changes ahead of final promotion push
Poor Daniel Stendel. The former Hannover player turned youth coach turned head coach will always have a place in the hearts of the club’s fans but unfortunately he no longer has a place in the dugout at the HDI-Arena, following his firing this weekend. His appointment a year ago – initially as an interim coach – slowed the sinking of a doomed ship that faced inevitable relegation and faith was put in him to deliver an immediate return to the Bundesliga. The club never shied away from how adamant they were about this goal and firmly stated that it was the sole expectation for this season.
“Hannover 96 has a goal in this season: the direct return to the 1. Bundesliga, which is why we have to take all decisions,” said newly-appointed general manager Horst Heldt. “In the end, football is a result sport and the results have not come the way in the last few weeks.” Heldt was only appointed a fortnight before making this statement and the announcement of the decision to ‘separate’ from Stendel had an air of inevitability. It was rumoured before Hannover’s dreadful 2-0 defeat to Karlsruher had even reached 90 minutes that it would be the coach’s last game in charge, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.
He was given the home game against 1860 München to make a case for himself and he passed that test – but only just, as they squeezed past in a 1-0 win in which the visitors missed a couple of glaring opportunities. But it seemed like the board were just waiting for Stendel to slip up to give them fair reason to wield the axe. It was no surprise then that the visit to Hamburg to face in-form St. Pauli was billed as another ‘must-win’ match for the coach. The 42-year old was in a light-hearted mood in the build-up to the game and didn’t appear worried about the prospect of losing his job, but come kick-off the team he picked betrayed his nerves.
One thing that has been obvious all season is how top-heavy this squad is. The strength in depth up front means the Hannover attacking line is one of the most fearsome in the league. Top-scorer Harnik is the only certain starter but there is a wealth of talent to use around him: On the wings Stendel has a choice of skill and trickery with Felix Kraus and Uffe Bech, or the pace of whizzkid Noah-Joel Sarenren-Bazee, or the intelligent versatility of Kenan Karaman, who can play anywhere across the attack. He can act as a strike partner for Harnik, or there is also summer splurge Niclas Füllkrug, or Polish international Artur Sobiech.
While Kraus and Karaman were injured for the St. Pauli game, there was still a lot of strong options to choose from. So what does Stendel do? He chooses to pick none of them and instead play Iver Fossum, a hard-working but limited no. 8, on the right wing and Miiko Albornoz, a Chilean-Swedish left-back, further forward on the left. The coach is known for his endless tinkering but this was about as negative a side as he could have picked. For what was supposedly a must-win game Stendel had set his stall out not to lose.
In the end, the team didn’t lose, but the coach did. St. Pauli and Hannover played out a 0-0 draw but one with a thrilling finale as both sides pushed for the winner. Frankly it’s a miracle that it ended goalless. Harnik showed some inspired movement, as always, but, as ever, his finishing was awry. It’s scary to think how many goals he could have scored this season on top of his tally of 17, considering he misses more big chances than he scores. Waldemar Anton moved from centre-back to defensive midfield for this game and was unlucky to only hit the post and not the net from range. And in stoppage time Sarenren-Bazee’s headed goal was disallowed due to a couple of fouls in the box. A win may have sustained Stendel’s job for another week but it would only have been delaying what seemed inevitable.
In the same press release that announced the firing it was also announced that André Breitenreiter would take over with immediate effect. No club would like to admit to speaking to other coaches before there was even a vacancy but this appointment was clearly a few weeks in the making. It’s an unsurprising hiring considering that Heldt and Breitenreiter worked together at Schalke last season. The new boss will be looking to repeat the success of his time at SC Paderborn, when he took earned promotion with them in 2014.
Breitenreiter faces a challenge to turn this Hannover side around though. While the stats are in their favour, more often than not their play this season has been uninspiring and they have become over-reliant on Harnik to bail them out of trouble. The defence has also regularly been calamitous and Stendel has struggled to find a settled team or even decide on his preferred formation. The good news for Breitenreiter is that, despite recent setbacks, the club are still sat as high as 4th in the league, only a point off 3rd and just four behind the new league leaders Union Berlin.
It’s a big call made by Heldt so early into his tenure at Hannover. The pressure will be on both him and Breitenreiter, the man he has put his trust into. If the so-called ‘new manager bounce’ works the team should be fighting amongst the top three for the remaining nine games of the season. For Stendel though, he becomes the latest casualty on the scrapheap of the ruthless industry that modern football has become. He will always be a hero for die Roten fans. – Anthony Wood.
- Resilient Fürth deny stuttering Stuttgart
Another game that had a momentous effect on the title race took place in Bavaria at the weekend, where Greuther Fürth hosted league leaders VfB Stuttgart. The visitors begun 2017 in rampant fashion, winning five games on the bounce to race into a healthy lead at the top of the table. However, in recent weeks that momentum has stalled though with 1-1 draws away at Eintracht Braunschweig and at home to VfL Bochum. With a six-game unbeaten streak of their own though Fürth were never going to be pushovers and so it proved to be.
Besides a stroke of luck towards the end of the first half in which Stuttgart striker Simon Terodde had a goal wrongly disallowed by the linesman’s flag, it was a phenomenal defensive display from the hosts, as they held out for a huge 1-0 victory. Unfortunately for the away side it was strongly reminiscent of another stoic defensive display, when Fortuna Düsseldorf inflicted the same scoreline way back in August. Janos Radoki deserves huge credit for lifting this Fürth side from 13th to 6th since he took charge. While there are still question marks about a plan B, his unique 3-4-1-2 system is getting the best out of his preferred starting XI.
The back three were especially impressive: Captain Marco Caligiuri hardly put a foot wrong, Marcel Franke in the centre won almost every header going, and Niko Gießelmann put in his best and most composed performance since he was converted from a left-back to a wide centre-back. Further forwards they have a number of potential match-winners in Robert Žulj, Serdar Dursun, and Veton Berisha, whose long-range snapshot proved to be the winner on Saturday. Individually, here is a lack of consistency up front but so long as one of them delivers on the day then Greuther Fürth always give themselves a chance. Stuttering Stuttgart, meanwhile, have just lost their grip on the top spot. – AW
Team of the Week
Pollersbeck (Kaiserslautern); Schauerte (Fortuna), Caligiuri (Fürth), Ba (1860), Franke (Fürth), Schuppan (Arminia); Schutz (Arminia), Boland (Braunschweig); Skrzybski (Union), ; Hennings (Fortuna), Berko (Dresden)
Goal of the Week
Ken Reichel, Eintracht Braunschweig (vs. Heidenheim)