From the Champions League to a relegation battle: what’s gone wrong at Union Berlin

For a fleeting moment, there was brief hope among the 70,000 fans who attended Union Berlin’s final Champions League group stage game on Tuesday. Czech midfielder Alex Král snatched an 85th minute equaliser as the Bundesliga side staged a late comeback against mighty Real Madrid. But Dani Ceballos ruined any kind of hope that Union could celebrate a maiden Champions League win, slotting past goalkeeper Frederik Ronnow to take three points home to Madrid.

Union’s supporters filled Berlin’s Olympiastadion, which is usually the ground for city rivals Hertha, but was used by Union for all three Champions League home matches instead of the much smaller Alte Försterei. The fans were not too hard on their team, although a sense of despair lingered after Union only earned a meagre two points in six games.

“It could have been more for us, but small things are crucial at this level,” midfielder Rani Khedira commented after Tuesday’s game. “When you have a man advantage at Braga for 60 minutes (the game finished 1-1), then you probably don’t deserve more.”

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While an early exit from the Champions League is not the end of the world for Union Berlin, it signifies how things have changed for the club that was so proud and optimistic following their fourth-place finish in the Bundesliga last season.

Just over six months ago, it seemed as if nothing could stop the upward trajectory of the team and, in particular, head coach Urs Fischer. However, a horrendous 14-game winless streak, including 12 consecutive losses, not only led to Fischer quitting, but also to serious doubts as to whether Union’s success in recent years was at an abrupt end.

Fischer was the face of Union’s rise from a second-division club to a formidable force in the Bundesliga, with the Swiss manager giving Union a distinct playing identity that relied on intelligent pressing and vertical attacking plays. But at some point, during the alarming slump that started in early September, Fischer seemed unable to instill any confidence into his struggling team.

Meanwhile, the aspirations of the club located in the eastern part of the capital had risen in light of high-profile signings, including long-time Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci as well as German international Robin Gosens.

During that five-year run after gaining promotion to the Bundesliga in 2019, Union were becoming increasingly ambitious, believing that they could not follow an underdog brand of football forever.

In January, Union hit the headlines in their attempts to sign Isco. The former Real Madrid star even flew to Berlin to meet club representatives, but ultimately did not sign a contract. Still, Union had made it abundantly clear that they were ready to pursue marquee names, not just under-appreciated players from smaller clubs in Germany as they had mostly done over the previous five years. The arrival of Bonucci, Gosens and few others seemed to signify a new era at the Alte Försterei.

Although as unpredictable as football often is, it did not lead to another new high for Union, but instead signalled a sad end to the Fischer era. Following his departure in November, Union were briefly linked with Raúl Gonzalez. However, the Spain legend stayed at Real Madrid Castilla and the Bundesliga club opted for a more conventional solution in Nenad Bjelica.

The 52-year-old Croatian is a familiar name in German football, having spent three years as a player at Kaiserslautern in the early 2000s. As a manager, Bjelica started out in Austria where he had finished his playing career, before moving to Italy to coach Spezia Calcio and onto Poland’s Lech Poznan. He enjoyed his big breakthrough upon returning to Croatia in 2018, taking over the prestigious head coaching position at Dinamo Zagreb days before the end of the 2017-2018 campaign. Bjelica clinched two domestic championships and Dinamo finally savoured some long-awaited victories on the European stage with him in charge. He most recently managed Turkish side Trabzonspor, but only stayed for six months.

The Croatian had not been a much-discussed figure in Bundesliga circles in recent years. Hence, his hiring by Union was somewhat surprising, but ultimately, it might prove a wise decision.

Bjelica does not necessarily represent a distinct tactical school, but he’s known for his man-management skills and the way he ignites passion and self-belief among his players. In the final days of Fischer’s tenure, Union were not just struggling with the tactical side of things, but a portion of the team appeared to slide down a giant hole of self-doubt. Even the fervent crowd at the Alte Försterei could not push the team onto victory.

Upon his arrival, Bjelica was tasked with preparing the team for an away Champions League tie at Braga, after the Bundesliga game against Bayern Munich was postponed due to a massive deluge of snow in southern Germany. For the match in Portugal, the new manager deviated from Fischer’s 3-5-2 and installed a back four, leaving Bonucci, who has flattered to deceive since his move in August, on the bench.

Despite the changes, Union were once again the reactive side waiting for the right moment to hit Braga on the break. Even after Braga defender Sikou Niakate received a red card and Gosens scored the go-ahead goal, Union weren’t overly confident and conceded shortly after half-time.

The first sign that Bjelica might be the right man to stop the downward slide came a few days after Union’s away trip to Braga. Snapping a 16-game run without a win in all competitions, the Alte Försterei celebrated a 3-1 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach.

“The team showed a great performance,” Bjelica commented afterward. “We were better than Gladbach in every aspect of the game — when we had ball possession, when we did not have the ball, when we played transitions.” For the Croatian manager, his new team’s performance was “practically perfect.”

In particular, the second goal scored by Benedict Hollerbach, who after his move from second-division team Wehen Wiesbaden had endured a hard time even getting on the pitch, caused a huge celebration among the 20,000 Union fans.

“Everyone whose heart is with Union was very happy about this goal,” Bjelica said. “I was not here the past three months, but I feel the club, I feel the fans, and how difficult this three-to-four-month period without a win in the Bundesliga must have been.”

A draw against Real Madrid on Tuesday would have been a great way to keep the positive energy going. For now, Bjelica and his players must make sure to follow up on the win over Gladbach, as Union are still languishing perilously just one point above the relegation zone. That the 52-year-old is now assigned to rescuing the club from a sudden downfall was not how anyone at the club envisioned this season going. Fans and officials hoped that the much-admired Fischer would stay at Union for many years to come.

However, as quickly as Union rose towards the top echelons of the Bundesliga, they dropped back down. Bjelica needs to garner points to create a gap to the relegation zone, while also managing the dressing room that is not just filled with hungry up-and-comers and late bloomers anymore, but also with well-paid veterans unaccustomed to fighting relegation. Times have certainly changed.

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